Faith Masonius paused briefly but didn’t take long to answer the question. She stood on the Xfinity Center floor as a celebration took place around her. Maryland had just been announced as a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, and the watch party was filled with smiles and laughter.
The scene was a bit difficult to imagine in August.
“Honestly, I don’t know if I would have believed you,” said Masonius, a senior. “Because with so many new girls coming in at that point, you never know what it’s going to be like. We have great basketball players individually, but how is it going to be [with] us playing together as a team?
“So I’m just really excited that we’ve gotten to this point. We’re playing great basketball offensively, defensively and just doing what we’ve got to do. We deserve that, too.”
Maryland lost its top two scorers and a top reserve to the transfer portal in one week in April. When the dust settled, the Terrapins were without five of their top six scorers. The headliners of the exodus were Angel Reese, the highest-ranked recruit in program history, and Ashley Owusu. Reese was named an Associated Press first team all-American in her first season at LSU.
The core of that Maryland team set offensive records for the program and was the highest scoring team in the nation in 2020-21. The Terps entered 2021-22 as national title contenders before losing in the Sweet 16 for the second straight season and seeing the mass exodus.
Those departures left Maryland ranked 17th to start this season and picked to finish fourth in the Big Ten.
“I had no idea what we were going to be at the beginning of the season,” Maryland guard Abby Meyers said. “Nine new transfers, it was definitely just a process of building the team up. It’s great to be a No. 2 seed. To us, it’s no surprise. We’ve been underestimated, we’ve been the underdog the whole year. But our record shows, our résumé shows, and we’re just excited to get out there and start hooping.”
Meyers was the most notable incoming transfer of the offseason as the reigning Ivy League player of the year, and she earned second team all-Big Ten honors after she averaged 14.5 points. Brinae Alexander left Vanderbilt as its leading scorer to become the top scorer off the Maryland bench. Lavender Briggs led Florida in scoring in 2020-21 before embracing an important bench role for the Terps. South Florida transfer Elisa Pinzan started every game at point guard. Sophomore Shyanne Sellers increased her scoring average from 7.7 points to 13.8 and was named second team all-Big Ten and to the conference’s all-defense team. Even freshman Bri McDaniel came on late, becoming a valued contributor off the bench.
All of those players had strong résumés, but no one knew how well they would fit in a new system and how quickly they would come together.
The Terps enter the tournament at No. 7 in the AP poll, the second-biggest in-season improvement for the program since Brenda Frese took over. The biggest? Maryland began the 2005-06 season ranked 14th and went on to win the national championship.
The Terps (25-6) open the NCAA tournament Friday afternoon in College Park with a first-round game against No. 15 seed Holy Cross (24-8) in the Greenville (N.C.) 1 Region. A victory means the winner of No. 7 Arizona and No. 10 West Virginia in a second-round game Sunday.
“This team’s going to go down as a really special group,” Frese said. “Last year, we all know, it was a tough year personally and professionally.
“It’s definitely a team that it just shows when you have the right pieces and the right chemistry, and I’ll say from our staff’s end, when we were looking at one point with seven, eight players on the roster, it was pretty daunting in the spring. You can ask my husband and my family. Just to see the right pieces come together and the fit and then to buy into a whole new system is pretty incredible.”
One of the biggest challenges has been the schedule, which Frese put together with a different roster in mind. There was a feeling after a 2021 Sweet 16 loss to Texas that those record-setting Terps weren’t properly tested before the postseason. The Big Ten wasn’t as strong as it is now and the 2020-21 nonconference slate featured just two ranked teams — No. 24 Missouri State and No. 14 Arkansas.
Compare that with this season’s schedule that included No. 1 South Carolina, No. 17 Baylor, No. 7 Notre Dame and No. 6 Connecticut. There are four other Big Ten teams ranked in the top 18, including No. 2 Indiana and No. 3 Iowa, and Maryland played each of them at least once. The Terrapins have seven wins over ranked opponents and four against top-10 teams. Rankings website WarrenNolan.com ranks them seventh in strength of schedule, and the Massey Ratings gave them the No. 2 strength of schedule in the nation.
New personnel and a tough schedule left Frese with the need to tweak some schematics. The Terps are known for their offensive firepower but became a more balanced squad in 2022-23. The defense became much more versatile as Frese used a multitude of zone and man-to-man looks. The full-court press became a consistent weapon, and Maryland forced the fourth-most turnovers in the Big Ten. The most impressive moment may have been a 96-68 February win over Iowa in which first-team all-American and Big Ten player of the year Caitlin Clark was limited to 5-for-13 shooting and first team all-Big Ten center Monika Czinano was held to four points.
“All the different coverages you were seeing was such a great approach to guarding Iowa that they hadn’t seen that,” Big Ten Network analyst Meghan McKeown said.
Former coach and current analyst Carolyn Peck added, “Remember Maryland used to be all gas, no brakes.”
As much of a surprise as the regular season has been, the NCAA tournament is the true measuring stick. The Terps advanced to the Sweet 16 the past two seasons. Now they want more — and to make a statement by a group that has been together for less than a year.