GREENVILLE, S.C. — For the past eight years, barriers have blocked Brenda Frese, her Maryland Terrapins and their progress. Though established as one of the premier programs in women’s college hoops, Maryland had consistently rammed up against the NCAA tournament’s region semifinal round, losing every battle against that seemingly immovable force.
The barriers came in various sizes and colors: too much of Oregon superstar guard Sabrina Ionescu in 2017, that shock of burnt orange from Texas in 2021, a throttling from top-ranked Stanford a year ago.
On Saturday, in yet another round-of-16 game — described cruelly as “sweet” when it had been anything but for the Terps — Frese and her players faced yet another obstacle. It was big and blue and bruising. But every barrier has a crack somewhere, and Maryland finally found it.
“The last two years, we’ve gotten stuck at the Sweet 16,” senior Faith Masonius said. “After our last home win, I told [Frese], ‘We’re not getting stuck there again.’ ”
After eight long years, the second-seeded Terrapins have returned to the class of the elites. They knocked down a Notre Dame squad and its roster of tall and stout post players, advancing with a 76-59 win into Monday’s region final. There, they will stare up at their fiercest challenge yet: the undefeated, top-seeded and reigning champion South Carolina Gamecocks.
At least the Terps know a thing or two about overcoming obstacles.
“We’re going to have our hands full, but I know we’re ready for it,” senior guard Abby Meyers said inside a locker room where the carpet was still wet from the celebratory shower Frese endured from her players. “We just have dogs on our team, and we’re just going to work every second [the] next game we play.”
Dogs they may claim to be, but Maryland needed to embody the spirit of a more sizable beast when going against Notre Dame because the aches and bruises began early.
Less than 30 seconds into the game, Masonius attempted a steal, twisted her ankle and headed for the sideline, although she quickly returned. A couple of minutes later, sophomore Shyanne Sellers entered the rumble underneath the boards and her goggles paid the price. The pace and physicality had Meyers rooting for a commercial break, and by the first media timeout, she was bent over, clutching her knees and gasping for air.
“I mean, I was exhausted,” Meyers said.
In the early stages of the game, there were few fouls called, no timeouts, tons of turnovers and constant battering. Notre Dame 6-foot-4 center Lauren Ebo, a graduate student from D.C. who played on that 2021 Texas team that defeated the Terps, packed the paint. Formidable as Ebo was inside, Notre Dame’s Kylee Watson provided as much height and had the speed to power around the Maryland defense.
The Terrapins possess speed from their taller perimeter players (Diamond Miller and Sellers), but not the size to match up against something so …
“Huge?” Masonius responded, finishing the description of what Maryland may lack in roster composition.
The size disparity became evident during the first five minutes — five minutes of hell for Meyers.
“All I know is that I really needed that media timeout because I needed to catch my breath,” she said. “I was pretty gassed at that point.”
Sellers, on her second pair of goggles, didn’t show the same signs of fatigue. Still, she and Miller, and later freshman Bri McDaniel, felt the brunt of the Irish’s bigs. They were tasked with defending the post, and the assignment probably affected their offensive output. Neither Miller nor Sellers scored in the first quarter. Miller, who averages nearly 20 points, finally cracked the big goose egg when she put her head down to force a whistle with 2:53 remaining in the half. Soon after, Sellers — with a heads-up play — threw an inbounds pass off Ebo’s backside and also generated foul shots. Her breakthrough on the scoreboard — Sellers made both free throws — came with 2:26 remaining in the half, but Notre Dame still led 29-25.
“The physicality was pretty brutal,” Sellers said. “Ebo, [Maddy] Westbeld, Kylee Watson — they’re all really strong girls. We knew we had to battle really hard, and that’s exactly what we did for 40 minutes.”
Miller added: “We knew we had to compete against their bigs, and we were prepared.”
After halftime, it showed, and Maryland flexed some muscle. Though the Terps had stayed close with three-pointers — they made four in the second quarter — they fearlessly drove downhill in the third. Sellers scored through contact for a layup and a foul, giving Maryland a 34-32 lead. A little later when McDaniel, who committed her body to whatever torture existed in the paint, took one of her many hard falls and absorbed an offensive foul, the turnover provided another possession for Maryland and one more layup for Sellers.
Then with about three minutes to go in the quarter, Sellers threw a lead pass to Miller, who was streaking down the court to unlock Maryland’s free-flowing transition game. Miller danced inside and scored another and-one layup.
“A terrific response. When you look at the box, 19 of the fouls drawn were between Shy, Diamond and Bri. I thought that aggressiveness [was what] we needed to have from the three of them,” Frese said. “Just a different mentality, I thought, in the third quarter.”
It was the mentality of the bully, and not the bullied.
Everything that makes up Sellers — her smile that teases mischief, her instincts that reveal an intelligence both on and off the court, and all that bravado — comes packaged in a spindly frame. She’s slight. And on first glance, it seems a gusty wind could knock her down. But near the end of that commanding third quarter, after she scored at the rim, Sellers lowered her open palm to the floor. She flashed the basketball sign language that has the same meaning around the world: Her opponent was just too small. Maryland had become the big bads.
“When it comes to size advantage, a lot of times we’re the ones under,” Masonius said. “Undersized … we’re pretty small, so we have to make up for that with heart and hustle. And I think just being able to pack the paint in with our defense and give ball pressure, so it’s not easy looks inside, is something that we really focused on, especially for this game.
“I think the majority of the time that you’re outsized by a team,” Masonius continued, “you just have to have that extra heart and hustle and fight in you to push.”
Maryland did, which made its long-awaited hurdle past this vicious round especially sweet.