Early last month, the Maryland women’s basketball team was preparing for the first game in program history against powerhouse Connecticut — and was doing so without starting point guard Laurin Mincy, the third player to suffer a season-ending anterior cruciate ligament tear this season.
Because of the depleted roster, Maryland arrived at XL Center in Hartford, Conn., knowing a handful of untested players were in line for extended minutes but uncertain how they would respond to a boisterous setting, similar to that of the NCAA tournament.
Even in a 63-45 loss, Maryland emerged with its morale elevated following a spirited performance that included contributions from three freshmen and a walk-on. Since then, the Terrapins have won six in a row convincingly and risen to eighth in the country with their ACC schedule set to begin in earnest on Thursday at No. 15 North Carolina.
“Given the adversity we’ve faced and the three freshmen, the amount of minutes they’re playing, I feel like our nonconference slate really prepared us,” Terrapins Coach Brenda Frese said. “We’ve been in some difficult environments on the road, and we’ve really learned a lot about ourselves.”
Days before the game at Connecticut, the Terrapins (10-2) won by 19 at then-No. 21 Nebraska on the same night Mincy tore her ACL.
Three weeks later, Maryland pulled away from Delaware at Bob Carpenter Center in front of 5,089, the largest crowd in school history to watch a women’s basketball game, in the return of Blue Hens all-American Elena Delle Donne.
Maryland is anticipating more inhospitable surroundings on Thursday at Carmichael Arena. The No. 15 Tar Heels (13-1) are unbeaten at home this season and have won six in a row overall.
“Every game is big for us, so we know we have to go out and play our best basketball,” said Maryland junior Alyssa Thomas, who figured prominently in a 78-72 overtime win in Chapel Hill, N.C., last season.
The ACC player of the year forced overtime by making a reverse layup as time expired and finished with a game-high 24 points on her way to leading the conference in scoring.
Normally a forward, Thomas this season has played multiple positions by necessity. Even though her scoring is down from a year ago, she’s averaging 9.3 rebounds, the second-most for Maryland, and team highs of 5.2 assists and 2.3 steals. She’s also one of four players nationally with a triple-double this season.
Despite just nine players on the active roster, including Wednesday’s addition of 6-foot-3 senior Caitlin Adams from the volleyball team, Maryland leads the country in rebounding margin (20.2) and is seventh in scoring margin (27.3).
Senior forward Tianna Hawkins has been a significant reason for that, averaging team highs of 18.8 points and 9.8 rebounds in the midst of the finest season in her career.
“I think we’re much more prepared than we were last year,” said Hawkins, whose putback off a missed free throw in overtime gave Maryland the lead for good against the Tar Heels last season. “We’re going into ACC play with a lot of confidence, and I think that’s a good thing.”
Because the ACC expanded its schedule to 18 games this season, the Terrapins had to start ACC play on Dec. 6 with a 79-55 win against Virginia.
Now comes the extended grind in one of the country’s most rugged conferences.
The ACC has four members who are in the top 25 and one other received the most votes among non-ranked teams.
“I think what I really like about this team is they’re not satisfied,” Frese said. “They continue to want to improve and get better whether it’s in practice or a game.”