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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Brenda Frese quickly turned a mostly new roster into a Sweet 16 team

Greenville 1 Region semifinal: No. 2 Maryland vs. No. 3 Notre Dame, 11:30 a.m. Saturday (ESPN)

Maryland Coach Brenda Frese and the Terps will face Notre Dame in the Sweet 16. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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Mark Thomas remembers being in the receiving line at Bill Frese’s funeral as a stream of people made their way to offer condolences to Thomas’s wife, Brenda Frese, and the rest of the family. The odd thing was that on this day, of all days, an overwhelming number of people wanted to talk basketball with the Maryland coach as she mourned her father.

“I know their intentions were good, but each time, for me, it was like a knife in the gut,” Thomas said, “because I just wanted to say to them, ‘Please, just let her be Bill Frese’s daughter right now and not the coach.’ But Frese stood there and engaged with them all until the last person. She never wavered. … She finds a way through everything. She doesn’t have pity parties. There’s no woe is me.”

Thomas added one more insight: “Nothing really stops her.”

The past 15 months or so have been full of adversity for Frese. Her father died Jan. 16, 2022, after a battle with prostate cancer, and Brenda still coached in a 20-point loss to Michigan that same day. Her Terrapins began that season ranked fourth only to deal with a litany of injuries and cohesion issues and end the campaign with a disappointing Sweet 16 loss. The roster was then decimated by graduations and transfers, including five of the Terps’ top six scorers and current national player of the year candidate Angel Reese. That left Frese and her staff scrambling.

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For Frese, whose second-seeded Terrapins (27-6) face third-seeded Notre Dame (27-5) in their third consecutive trip to the Sweet 16, it would have been easy for the focus of this season to be on rebuilding with an eye toward the future. Instead, she put together one of the best coaching jobs of her career — two years after she was named Associated Press coach of the year for the second time.

“You look at the talent level on this team compared to a year ago, and you might think, ‘Oh, well, there’s not as much talent,’ ” said Stephanie White, analyst and coach of the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun. “ … It’s just different. You can’t put a price on what chemistry means to a team. I feel like this is one of the best coaching jobs that Brenda’s done, and she’s had a lot of really great ones.”

The results have been familiar for the winningest coach in program history, though the process has been markedly different. First the roster had to be filled. In came Ivy League player of the year Abby Meyers, Vanderbilt leading scorer Brinae Alexander, former American Athletic Conference most improved player Elisa Pinzan and former Florida leading scorer Lavender Briggs, who arrived last season but didn’t play until this year.

After the players were signed, the style of play needed to be tweaked. There were no true post players on the roster, so what would they run offensively? How would they avoid getting destroyed on the boards every night? How would they defend?

Associate head coach Karen Blair said the staff spent the spring and summer in a deep dive looking at schemes with five perimeter players, specifically figuring out how to “blow up the offense.” They studied the NBA, as well as Miami’s and Alabama’s men’s teams.

Even with the roster solidified and a plan in place, the coaching staff would still be asking an eight-woman rotation that included five newcomers to jell while playing one of the toughest schedules in the nation. The schedule was put together in anticipation of having a much more seasoned group.

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“You can dwell on the negativity, but that’s just not Brenda’s mentality,” said Blair, who has been with the program since 2018. “Brenda is like, we’ve got to build right now in the present and build the future, and we’re just going to put our hard hat on, and we’re going to go to work. I don’t think Brenda gets enough credit. What she does year in and year out, making winning look easy. Winning is hard. Winning is really, really hard.”

The Terrapins managed to figure all of that out over the course of the regular season while beating seven ranked teams, and Blair credits a work ethic that Frese learned from her parents, Bill and Donna.

A late-season win over Iowa may be the greatest example of Maryland and Frese’s evolution. The Terps were blown out, 96-82, at Iowa as two-time Big Ten player of the year Caitlin Clark scored 42 points — her second-highest total of the season. All-Big Ten center Monika Czinano poured in 28 points. When the teams met 19 days later, Maryland switched defenses and held Czinano to four points and Clark to 5-for-13 shooting in a 96-68 win. It was the biggest loss of the season for the Hawkeyes.

“She really showed off why she’s one of the best coaches in the country when it came to that game plan of taking down Iowa, how she mixed up defenses and everything like that,” Big Ten analyst Meghan McKeown said. “One hundred percent, this is one of the best jobs she’s done.”

Players have noticed an evolution by Frese. Seniors Faith Masonius and Diamond Miller both mentioned how she has been able to form relationships with players and how that has helped a group of strangers grow together quicker. The basic X’s and O’s haven’t changed much, but they have been adapted to the skill sets of the team. This particular group has embraced defense, a different look for Frese’s teams, which have traditionally been known for offense.

“It’s definitely great to have all those different options, and it allows us to kind of have a sneak attack effect on different teams,” Masonius said. “So nobody really knows what we’re going to be throwing at them.”

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Miller added: “She just knows how to coach each team differently. . . . She just has a lot of tricks up her sleeves to know how to motivate different groups.”

Maryland still has the opportunity to show how truly special 2022-23 has been. A victory over Notre Dame would give the Terps their first Elite Eight appearance since they reached the Final Four in 2015. They began the season at No. 17 and finished the regular season No. 7, the second-biggest in-season improvement for the program since Frese took over. The biggest jump came when the 2005-06 squad started the season ranked 14th, finished third and went on to win the national championship.

“This is another coach of the year job by Brenda Frese,” analyst Debbie Antonelli said. “Brenda had more question marks around her and her team for this year prior to the start, which has got to make it more palatable for her to see that, once again, she finds what she needs and she wins and she wins at a high level.”