A busted pipe, a flood and a move to a new arena are the first memories Maryland women’s basketball Coach Brenda Frese recalls of her one season as head coach at Minnesota.
It was 2001-02, and the Gophers had hired Frese to take over a program whose reputation on and off the court was in need of repair following the dismissal of Cheryl Littlejohn for rules violations. What’s more, in Littlejohn’s final season, Minnesota finished 8-20.
Frese, meanwhile, was getting her first taste of major college basketball after two seasons at Ball State. According to former Minnesota all-American Lindsay Whalen, players got a sense immediately the culture would be drastically different.
“We had the talent on the team to be really good, and we just needed leadership to point us in the right direction,” Whalen, a five-time WNBA all-star now with the Minnesota Lynx, wrote of Frese in an e-mail from Turkey, where she plays when the U.S. pro league is in its offseason. “She made basketball really fun for all of us. I give her a lot of credit in coming in and seeing the type of team we were and giving us structure. Once we started winning, we all just gained so much confidence and trust in her.”
On Sunday, Frese is set to make her first appearance at Williams Arena since leaving Minnesota, where she won national coach of the year after directing the team to a 22-8 record in the biggest turnaround in Big Ten history. The 12th-ranked Terrapins (12-2 overall) and No. 23 Gophers — off to their best start, at 14-1, since 2003-04 and ranked for the first time since 2006 — are both undefeated in the conference through three games.
The Barn, as the Minnesota faithful affectionately refer to Williams Arena, wasn’t always home to the women’s team. When Frese began her only season at the school, the Gophers instead played at the adjoining Sports Pavilion, routinely drawing scant fan support.
Then came the discovery Jan. 19, 2002, that a water main had burst in the Sports Pavilion, leaving the facility flooded. The women moved to Williams Arena for good starting with their next home game Jan. 27 against Indiana. More than 11,000 fans witnessed the 75-60 victory, and as Whalen wrote, “After that, the season just took on a life of its own.”
“That was kind of a pivotal point, all because of a water break,” Frese said. “Just that change, and I got to coach Janel McCarville and Lindsay Whalen. They were a dream come true to coach. It was a fun year.”
The changes under Frese were especially comforting for Whalen, who as one of the country’s top recruits spurned the sport’s old guard to stay in her home state. The then-sophomore was named Big Ten player of the year, and McCarville was the Big Ten freshman of the year. The Gophers went 4-1 at Williams Arena in 2001-02 on their way to what at the time were the most wins in a season in school history and the program’s second NCAA tournament appearance, where they advanced to the round of 32.
Shortly thereafter, Frese agreed officially to become Maryland’s head coach following the retirement of Chris Weller. But Minnesota players found out before Frese could tell them in person because the news had been leaked — and appeared on a ticker during the men’s Final Four.
Soon, members of the media were descending on Frese’s front lawn.
“It was horrific,” Frese said. “We called a team meeting the next morning, and they already knew. Really tough meeting when your players find out not from you but the media first. Then it made it even tougher, just the shock of it all.”
In the years since, Frese has directed Maryland to the school’s only national championship in women’s basketball, two Final Four berths, including last season’s, and six appearances in the regional finals. The Terrapins have missed the NCAA tournament just twice under Frese, who said she anticipates that many family members and friends will attend Sunday’s game.
Maryland has won six in a row, including 75-47 on the road against No. 19 Nebraska last weekend.
“I had a meeting with Coach B, and I asked her if she was excited about going back to Minnesota,” Terrapins redshirt senior Laurin Mincy said. “She was really excited. She doesn’t know what to expect as far as the reaction when she gets there, but we’re going to play hard for her and try to come out with a win.”