With the eighth-ranked Maryland women’s basketball team set to make its final appearance in the ACC tournament, Coach Brenda Frese has been educating her charges about the program’s storied history in the event, including a record 10 championships.
At the beginning of the week, Frese caught the team’s attention when she told them Maryland had won the inaugural ACC tournament title in Charlottesville in 1978. These days, the tournament has a permanent home in Greensboro, N.C., where the Terrapins have won two titles since 2009.
Maryland (24-5, 12-4) earned a double bye into the quarterfinals as the No. 3 seed and will face No. 6 seed North Carolina on Friday night at Greensboro Coliseum.
“For all of us, this ACC tournament is the biggest one because it is our last time doing this, and we’ll be in the Big Ten next year,” sophomore point guard Brene Moseley said. “I think the biggest thing for us is being able to seize the moment because every game isn’t guaranteed. We’re going down there as the last team to be able to take it away, so since this is our last time being able to win an ACC championship, we want to leave our mark.”
The Terrapins are much better equipped than last season to do just that with a roster that includes 10 players who average at least 131 / 2 minutes per game. Over the final two games of the regular season, Maryland’s reserves have averaged 44 points, and Frese and her players have talked extensively about depth making a difference when having to play three games in three days to reach the final.
In last year’s quarterfinals, Maryland used a rotation of primarily six players because of season-ending injuries to its starting back court and managed to beat to beat Wake Forest, 91-81. The Terrapins opened a 14-point halftime lead against North Carolina in the semifinals the next day before fading in a 72-65 loss.
“It’s a huge advantage,” senior forward Alyssa Thomas said of the Terrapins’ depth. “Last year, we ran out of gas in the second game. This year, I think our numbers will definitely play to our strength, and we’ll be able to keep people fresh.”
Frese frequently substitutes in waves, but Thomas, who has averaged at least 30 minutes per game in each of the last three seasons, receives the least amount of rest given her contributions in so many statistical categories. Thomas, who leads Maryland in scoring, rebounding and steals and is tied for the team lead in assists per game, was named ACC player of the year Wednesday for the third consecutive season, joining Duke’s Alana Beard (2002-04) as the only players to accomplish the feat.
Among the most memorable of the many highlights in Thomas’s career was being named tournament MVP after she scored a career-high 29 points as a sophomore in a 68-65 victory over Georgia Tech in the championship game.
The ACC farewell tour for Thomas, her teammates and the coaching staff this season has been nowhere near as celebratory as that moment. In its final season before departing for the Big Ten, the conference’s schedule-makers did not give Maryland home-and-home series with rivals Duke or North Carolina, a peculiar shift from the norm.
The Terrapins instead played only road games against those ACC powers. In its last visit to Cameron Indoor Stadium as a member of the ACC, Maryland not only lost, 84-63, but spent the final few minutes having to endure the Duke student section chanting “A-C-C, A-C-C, A-C-C” in a mock send-off.
The schedule also included a week off in early January, meaning Maryland wound up playing 14 straight games without an extended break. Still, the Terrapins closed the regular season by winning four straight and eight of nine.
Then there was the Feb. 2 visit to Syracuse, a first-year member of the ACC, where the Terrapins got bumped from their regularly scheduled morning practice time because ESPN was using the facility. The alternative presented to Maryland was a later slot less than 24 hours before the next day’s noon tip-off, so team officials had to scramble to find an area high school to conduct practice.
“Tremendous respect [for the ACC], and you always reflect on the wonderful battles that we’ve had,” said Frese, who will be coaching in her 12th ACC tournament. “But I think at this time of year when you’re playing in any tournament, postseason is the next phase of your season, so obviously we’re really excited in having the double bye. We’re hoping we’re going in playing some of our best basketball.”