COLLEGE PARK. Md. – ESPN was in town to broadcast live from Xfinity Center and there was a buzz among the excitable crowd on hand to see where the Maryland women’s basketball team would land in the 2015 NCAA Tournament.
They had to wait – Maryland was in the last group announced, the Spokane Region – but it was worth it. A roar went up when the 30-2, 4th-ranked Terrapins appeared on the top line as a No. 1 seed for the first time in seven years.
The top-seeded Terrapins will host 16th seed New Mexico State (22-7) March 21 at 1:30 p.m. in Xfinity Center, looking to get back to the Final Four for a second straight year.
“I think it shows we had a really consistent season,” said Maryland coach Brenda Frese of the No. 1 seed. “When you go undefeated and win your conference tournament, really at this point now none of it matters. You have to be able to come out and play your best basketball. “
Her players, on the same page since December, echoed their coach. “We’re all about one game at a time,” said star guard Lexie Brown. “We’re just going to focus on New Mexico State to begin with.”
It’s hard not to look ahead, though, at what certainly seems like the toughest road for any of the No. 1 seeds. The much-anticipated seeding of undefeated Ivy League champ Princeton (30-0) landed the Tigers in Maryland’s pod. Princeton plays Green Bay (28-4) Saturday at 11 a.m. The winner of that game will likely face Maryland on March 23.
And should the Terrapins advance out of College Park, it’s on to Spokane where a familiar foe, 4th-seeded Duke could be waiting in a dream TV matchup. Perennial power Tennessee, who the Terrapins eliminated from the field last year, is the No. 2 seed in this region, and the championship could go through the orange-clad Lady Vols, too, to get to Tampa, Fla., for the Final Four.
“It’s a great bracket that we’re in, really excited for all the competition,” said Maryland senior guard Laurin Mincy. “This is very special for me, very personal because this will be my last games playing in (Xfinity). I’m very appreciative for that moment.”
Mincy said this selection was special, live ESPN, the reaction of freshmen going through this for the first time, a couple of hundred loud fans and this overachieving team earning a No. 1 seed. “It means a lot. I kind of knew it was going to be a special season the way we bounced back from our Washington State loss (Nov. 29) and our loss at Notre Dame (Dec. 3). We reconnected with each other, the coaches. We just did what we needed to do and got back to Maryland basketball – rebounding and just playing hard.”
Frese said one of her first calls Monday night may be to her sister, Marsha, who coaches Missouri-Kansas City, a member of New Mexico State’s Western Athletic Conference. She was also happy to have the extra day, playing on Saturday, to gather intelligence and prepare for the Aggies.
“Maybe I’ll get a good scouting report from my sister,” Frese laughed. “Any team at this point is a great team.”
Frese will likely focus on Maryland as much as she does on New Mexico State. “It’s on and off the court, preparing them for the opponent we’re going to play,” she said. “Then for us, it’s executing what we do best and taking that into the game.”
It will have been 13 days since Maryland last played when the Terrapins take the floor Saturday against the Aggies, who won the WAC title Saturday. When last seen, Maryland took the Big Ten title with a 77-74 win over Ohio State in the conference championship game March 8 in Hoffman Estates, Ill., capping their perfect conference campaign.
All-conference guard Brown knocked down a couple of clutch free throws on her way to 18 points, and fellow All-Big Ten First Team honoree Shatori Walker-Kimbrough chipped in 13. Malina Howard posted her second career double-double with a timely 12 points and 12 rebounds.
Mincy, a second team all-conference choice, added 12 points. Brown was named tournament MVP, after averaging 21 points, with 11 assists and 10 steals at the event. She hit 19-of-21 free throws, and drained eight threes in the three games.
“I’m really proud of this team,” said Brown. “I think everybody gets confident in March. Everybody is 0-0, and anything can happen. We’re just going to play as hard as we can and win games.”
Maryland will host the first two rounds, and that has proven a good launching pad. The Terrapins are 12-2 in NCAA games in Xfinity, with six wins in a row. They were also 15-0 at home this season during the regular season.
And March 17 night, the Terrapins hosted perhaps their grandest selection party, moving the festivities from Heritage Hall above the arena to the Xfinity Center floor, the players, coaches and staff seated in front of a backdrop of fans completely filling the lower middle section of seats and spilling into the second level. The scoreboard was lowered for better viewing and with the two Big Ten trophies won this year on a table at their side, the Terrapins were surrounded by a phalanx of cameras and photographers, along with other media members.
“It never gets old,” said Frese. “It’s an honor to be selected, to see your university and your name up in the lights. It’s something we’ll never take for granted.”
Maryland will be a tough out in the 2015 field. The Terrapins have won 24 straight games, since that Dec. 3 loss at Notre Dame. With a win in their first tournament game Saturday, the Terps will set a new school record for consecutive victories. Maryland also won 24 in a row during the 2006 run to the national championship and into the following season.
En route to Big Ten regular season and tournament titles in their first year in the conference, the Terrapins became the first Big Ten team to go undefeated in conference play (18-0) since Purdue went 16-0 in 1998-99. This is the first Maryland team, men’s or women’s, to go undefeated in conference play in basketball.
Accordingly, the Terrapins have been ranked in the Associated Press poll all season, and now have a steak of 93 consecutive weeks ranked.
Maryland is making it’s 23rd appearance in the NCAA Tournament, and the 11th under head coach Brenda Frese. The Terrapins are 37-21 (.638) all-time in the NCAA Tournament, and 25-9 (.735) under Frese. Maryland is 12-2 in NCAA games played at Xfinity Center, and they were 15-0 at home during the regular season this year.
Frese has led her Maryland teams to Six Sweet Sixteens, five Elite Eights, two Final Fours, including last season, and the 2006 NCAA title. Frese is 25-9 in tournament games at Maryland, 26-10, overall.
The Aggies are making their first NCAA appearance since 1998, but coach Mark Trakh has a strong track record. He has taken every program he has guided – Pepperdine, Southern Cal and now New Mexico State – to the tournament. The Aggies rely on 6-1 sophomore Brianna Freeman (13.7 ppg, 8.1 rpg), who was the WAC Player of the Year and the tournament outstanding player.
Sasha Weber, a 6-0 junior guard, averages 15 points and 5.2 rebounds, and 5-6 guard Shanice Davis chips in 14 points per game. The Aggies have won five straight games and 17 of their last 18. They’re 18th in the nation with 11.2 steals per game and also rank 18th with 8.1 3-pointers made per contest.
Maryland has also been powered by a strong and deep perimeter attack this season, Brown leading the way with 13.7 points and 4.7 assists per game, Walker-Kimbrough chipping in 13.4 points and 5.4 rebounds, and Mincy, finally completely healthy after a career filled with knee injuries, adding 13.3.
Inside, big 6-3 sophomore Brionna Jones averages 12.1 points and a team-high 8.8 rebounds, while shooting 59.6 percent from the floor. She joined Mincy on the All-Big Ten Second Team. Howard, a 6-4 senior who was honored with a Big Ten sportsmanship award, rounds out the starting five with 6.3 points and 4.8 rebounds.
Brene Moseley (5.6 ppg, 1.3 assists) was sensational off the bench, and versatile Tierney Pfirman (5.0 ppg, 4.1 rpg) can fill a variety of roles as a key reserve. Freshmen Kristen Confroy, Kiara Leslie and A’Lexus Harrison, and juniorChloe Pavlech have all played important parts during the season, as well.
“That’s the conversation we had before the season, that we all had to step up,” said Brown. “If we were going to be successful, we had to play like a team. Everyone bought into that and it has been really fun.”
Maryland’s defense has been a difference-maker this season, led by Big Ten All-Defensive Team selection Brown, the Terrapins are averaging more steals (8.9) than they have in the last 12 years. They had a season-high 24 thefts Nov. 16 against Wagner. Maryland has elicited 553 opponent turnovers and have scored 20 points per game off those turnovers.
Led by Jones and Howard, and those slashing guards, Maryland has also forged a decisive advantage in the paint, outscoring opponents there per game by a 35.9 to 28.2. Ten of Jones’ 11 double-doubles this season were against conference teams.
“Hopefully we can make another run this year,” said Jones. “This year we knew we had to work more together than just focus on Alyssa (Thomas) like we did last year. Losing her, we lost a lot of scoring and everything so we had to find a way to make it up.”
After the loss to Notre Dame, Brown said the team had a major shift in attitude and work ethic. “We had to take a hard look at ourselves and ask ‘Are we working as hard as we can?’ Notre Dame was an amazing team and we’re going to have to be an amazing team like that if we ever want to win a national championship, so we took it upon ourselves to get into the ranks of the Notre Dames and the UConns, and I hope we get another crack at them. I feel like we’re a different team than we were in November.”
Terps Take a Top Seed, Face New Mexico State
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