The Maryland women’s basketball team is so reliant on underclassmen that the majority of the roster has no firsthand familiarity with college basketball’s grandest stage. At this time last year, many of the Terrapins’ current regulars had just completed postseason tournaments in high school. Others were getting set for the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.
Thus, teachable moments have been the focus for Coach Brenda Frese in advance of Maryland’s first-round NCAA tournament game on Sunday afternoon against 13th-seeded St. Francis (Pa.) at Comcast Center, where the fourth-seeded Terrapins are 13-2 this season. This will be Maryland’s 19th appearance in the NCAA tournament and seventh in nine seasons under Frese, who won the national championship in 2006.
“I think with a young team, it’s more you’re trying even to explain to them what the NCAA tournament is, so to speak,” Frese said. “It’s like [freshman center] Alicia DeVaughn telling me she didn’t know who the Fab Five were. You know, you’re just perplexed, so that kind of education process, the fact that only three of our players have been in the NCAA tournament, that’s a different element.”
That trio comprises center Lynetta Kizer and guards Anjale Barrett and Kim Rodgers, all juniors. They were freshmen when the Terrapins (23-7) last qualified for the NCAA tournament, although only Kizer, an All-Met as a senior at Potomac (Va.) High, averaged more than 17 minutes per game that season.
Last season, Maryland’s string of six consecutive NCAA tournament berths ended during a transitional period for the program. There was just one senior who played regularly in 2009-10, and reinforcements were soon to arrive with one of the most highly regarded recruiting classes in the country.
Alyssa Thomas was the centerpiece, and the guard-forward validated Frese’s early pursuit of her by being named ACC rookie of the year and second-team all-conference. Thomas leads Maryland in scoring (14.2 points per game) and is second in rebounding (7.2). DeVaughn, meantime, is averaging 18 minutes per game as Kizer’s understudy, and freshman guards Laurin Mincy and Natasha Cloud have accumulated substantial minutes in important games.
That youth has Maryland well positioned for the future, but it also has betrayed the team on occasion. Maryland has been among the most fickle teams in the country, at one juncture appearing equipped for an extended postseason stay but just as quickly losing that momentum with a baffling loss.
Take, for instance, convincing victories over North Carolina and Duke, who battled for the ACC tournament championship two weeks ago. Those wins stand in stark contrast to losses against Boston College and Virginia, teams that missed the NCAA tournament.
“No season is ever guaranteed or duplicated, so you have to take each season in and of its own,” Frese said. “You have a tremendous opportunity in front of yourself this year, so let’s go and see how far we can get with this team and this season because there are no guarantees for next year that we’re going to be better or how things are going to play out. You’ve got to take advantage of your opportunity now.”
Maryland’s juniors and sophomores recalled how deflating last season’s NCAA tournament snub was, and it elevated their appreciation for making it back this time. Kizer was especially emotional after the field was unveiled on Monday night, needing to compose herself to conduct interviews. Then she spoke extensively about how playing in late March is a privilege not to be considered lightly.
That’s the message the juniors in particular have been conveying to their teammates, whose closest brush with an NCAA tournament-type environment was a first-round ACC tournament loss to Georgia Tech more than two weeks ago.
“You never know what can happen,” Rodgers said. “We’ve had a lot of people on our team who have had injuries, so some us know what it’s like to have the game taken from you. I think everybody understand this is it, and if we win that means more postseason time, more postseason workouts, more times when you get to play another official game. I think everybody’s got a good grasp of that.”