Maryland women get a rousing sendoff as they head to the Final Four in Nashville

Before the Maryland women’s basketball team departed Thursday night for the Final Four in Nashville, coaches and players spent roughly half an hour accepting words of encouragement and congratulations from friends, relatives and supporters of the program while pausing for interviews with the media throng gathered outside Comcast Center.

Among those waiting enthusiastically to send off the Terrapins was school President Wallace Loh, who told Coach Brenda Frese how proud he was of the team’s charge through the NCAA tournament. As Frese, her staff and players boarded the team bus bound for the BWI airport, Loh had one final message: “Kick butt.”

With that, senior reserve guard Sequoia Austin asked and received from Loh “one final hug for good luck,” and the Terrapins were on their way to the school’s fourth NCAA national semifinals and second under Frese.

“It’s remarkable,” Frese said of the pep rally. “I mean, so fitting in terms of how hard these players, our staff and our support staff have worked, to be able to see this camaraderie, the support we have from the university and the so many fans who supported this team all season long.”

Maryland (28-6) reached this point thanks to winning the Louisville Region, where it was the fourth seed. The Terrapins dispatched top seed Tennessee, 73-62, in the round of 16 before outlasting Louisville, 76-73, in the regional final at KFC Yum! Center, dealing the Cardinals just their second loss at home in 19 games.

The Terrapins are the lowest seed in the Final Four, where they will play undefeated ACC newcomer Notre Dame on Sunday at Bridgestone Arena. The Fighting Irish are the No. 1 seed out of the South Bend Region and beat Maryland earlier this season, 87-83, at Comcast Center but not before the Terrapins erased a 22-point deficit and led in the second half.

Undefeated Connecticut, the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament, plays No. 2 seed Stanford in the other national semifinal. The Huskies have won eight national championships to match Tennessee for most all time, and the Cardinal has two titles overall and six berths in the Final Four since 2008.

“It’s an incredible feeling,” said Terps point guard Lexie Brown, who was named to the ACC all-freshman team after taking over as the starter four games into this season. “It’s making me even more excited for next season, but the support we’ve had the whole season actually but especially these last couple weeks has been awesome.”

The past two days have been particularly demanding for not just the players and coaching staff but also managers, the public relations office and just about anyone affiliated with the team. In a move to allow her players to recharge as much as possible, Frese gave her players the past two days off from practice just as she did leading into regionals.

Once the Terrapins arrive in Nashville, they will go directly to the team hotel and get a night of much welcomed rest before partaking in a full day’s worth of activities as part of the pageantry during Final Four weekend. Included on Friday’s schedule are several rounds of media interviews, practice at Tennessee State and a swanky party for the players in the evening at historic Ryman Auditorium.

But once that event concludes, players must turn in their cellphones, tablets and laptops and be disconnected electronically so their entire focus can turn to Notre Dame, which is making its fourth straight appearance in the Final Four and was the national championship runner-up in 2011 and 2012.

“It’s crazy to think there’s only four teams left and we’re one of them,” said senior forward Alyssa Thomas, a three-time All-American who is Maryland’s career scoring leader and is just one rebound from becoming the school’s career leader. “We’re just ready to get down there.”

Gene Wang is a sports reporter covering multiple beats, including Navy football, the Capitals, Wizards, Nationals, women’s basketball, auto racing, boxing and golf. He also covers Fantasy Football.
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