The banner has been looming overhead at Comcast Center for going on eight years now. That means that the current freshmen were in elementary school when Maryland won the women’s basketball national championship in 2006.
Coach Brenda Frese’s Terps have yet to return to the Final Four since, let alone win a second title. But after they reached the Sweet 16 with an injury-decimated team last year, there’s a feeling that this could again be a special season in College Park.
“I think we exceeded expectations last year,” said Frese, who is 280-94 during 11-plus years at Maryland. “Getting to a Sweet 16 when we were down to six [scholarship] players was like getting to a Final Four. If we stay healthy, work hard, and jell as a team, the sky’s the limit. We have that much talent.”
Frese is so confident in her eighth-ranked Terps that Maryland opened at 2013 NCAA Tournament entrant South Florida and will play host tomorrow to top-ranked Connecticut, the defending champion.
“When we went into UConn last year, we were starting a new point guard and a new two-guard [after season-ending injuries to Laurin Mincy and Brene Moseley],” said Frese, whose Terps lost 63-47 to the Huskies in Hartford last December and fell 76-50 to them in Bridgeport in the Sweet 16. “Now we have 14 players. We have depth at every position. We’re definitely looking forward to the matchup. They’ve got [high school] All-Americans at every position. They’ve got great size and depth. They’ve got two first-team preseason All-Americans [forwards Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Breanna Stewart]. We’ll be able to evaluate where we are as a team and as a program.”
Maryland senior forward Alyssa Thomas, also a first-team All-American, said there’s “no pressure on us. They’re coming into our environment.”
That’s Comcast Center where the Terps – not counting the 2009-10 rebuilding year — have lost just nine games since winning it all in 2006.
Mincy, who tore her right ACL just before the first game against UConn last season, is especially excited to finally get the chance to play the program that has won eight of the last 19 national titles.
“I think we have a really good shot of beating them with our depth,” said Mincy, who said she’s still not 100 percent after needing a follow-up scope in July. “Compared to past years, we can get up and press people and jump the passing lanes. We’re a lot more athletic than we were. We’re very long. We have shooters. We have drivers.”
Maryland certainly needed its depth against South Florida. Thomas had as many fouls, four, as points while playing just 10 minutes. All told, the Terps’ starters scored just 14 points, but freshmen Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Lexie Brown combined for 23 in a 78-70 victory.
“A year ago if Alysssa had had that stat line, we wouldn’t have had the luxury of being able to win on the road against a really good team,” Frese said. “Our bench, our depth was huge. All three of our freshmen [including athletic center Brionna Jones] showed up and didn’t play like freshmen. They were the difference.”
Frese said that the return of Mincy and Moseley is also making a difference because “having guards that can beat defenders off the dribble and create shots for each other is huge. Lauren and Brene can both attack off the bounce and shoot the three. They’re hard to guard.”
But not as hard as the 6-foot-2 Thomas, who posted an incredible triple-double last year, leading the ACC in scoring, rebounding and assists while becoming the first player in NCAA history to average at least 18 points (18.8), 10 rebounds (10.3) and five assists (5.3).
“We ask Alyssa to do so much,” Frese said. “She can play inside and rebound, but she can also take it like LeBron James down the middle of the floor with an attack mentality. She’s kind of our facilitator. Everything runs through her. Where she’s elevated her game this year is that she’s able now to make real easy plays for everybody else.”
Thomas might become Maryland’s career scoring leader and figures to finish as the program’s third all-time rebounder. But the one-time quiet freshman turned vocal leader has other goals in mind.
“The game has really slowed down for me,” Thomas said. “I just want to be an efficient player, play my game and create. We have so many people that can score so if I do get double-teamed that just gives somebody else an open look. You’ve got to pick your poison. It’s all about the team. That [national championship] banner is part of our history. We want to be where they were. Being that it’s my last year, it’s time to give everything I have left. We have all the pieces. We went through so much last year, I think it really prepared us for this year.”
While fellow ACC powerhouses Duke, Notre Dame and North Carolina all lie ahead on the schedule, Thomas and Co. will really begin to see how prepared they are for a title run tomorrow night.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.