COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- “College Park” came up on the ESPN Selection Show special March 14 before “Maryland” did. It was a spoiler alert that some Terrapin veterans like Chloe Pavlech and Malina Howard picked up right away.
“Once I saw ‘College Park,’ I tapped Tyler (Frese) and I tapped Malina (Howard), and I said, ‘Hey, this is us, get ready,’” said Pavlech, the senior point guard.
Chances are the two-time Big Ten champions, already on a streak of back-to-back Final Fours, will be ready when Iona (23-11) comes to town for a 1:30 showdown March 19. Along with the No. 2 seed Terrapins and 15th seed Gaels, 7th seed Washington and 10th seed Pennsylvania will be in College Park in the Lexington, Ky. Bracket.
“We have worked so hard and I think the reward is playing at home in front of our great fans,” said junior Shatori Walker-Kimbrough. “I saw ‘College Park’ come up but it didn’t register that we were a No. 2 seed. I just wanted to know who we were playing. That’s the moment I was waiting for.”
Some of the Terrapins might be excused if they’re still asking just whom they are playing March 19. Iona won their first ever Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference title last week as the second seed, knocking off No. 1 Quinnipiac. Senior forward Joy Adams and junior guard Marina Lizarazu led the way, the 5-8 Lizarazu named Most Outstanding Player after scoring 19 points in the title game. The 5-11 Adams chipped in 11 points and 13 rebounds.
The Gaels led the MAAC in scoring defense (56.6 points per game), and field goal percentage defense (.369). Iona also led the league with a +2.8 rebounding margin, which is nice. Ahem, Maryland led the nation at +15.5, and that’s one of several edges the Terrapins will have.
“It doesn’t matter about any of that because everyone is good this time of the year,” said Walker-Kimbrough, named First Team All-Big Ten along with Brionna Jones. “It’s kind of like hitting the refresh button going into the tournament. Everyone’s record is 0-0.”
Well, Maryland’s record is actually 30-3, and the Terrapins finished the regular season the No. 5-ranked team in the Associated Press poll, behind only top seeds Connecticut, Notre Dame, South Carolina and Baylor. Maryland landed in Notre Dame’s region, if you want to look down the road. The Terrapins aren’t doing that, they say.
“Every team that makes the tournament is a tough team,” said Jones. “I think you have to be the most prepared team each time you play, and that’s what we’re working on. You have to know what you’re doing and execute it.”
“We just have to stay true to what we’re doing,” added senior Brene Moseley, the Sixth Player of the Year in the Big Ten. “The games have more weight because you’re one and done, but we have to stay true to what got us here. You have to be prepared. That’s what I tell the younger players. You never know when your number is going to be called.”
All the Terrapins were thankful for the time off. They won the Big Ten Tournament on March 6, with that 60-44 win over Michigan State. It will be 13 days when they next take the court for a game. “Recovery and rest, that’s going to be key because you play so many games,” said Pavlech.
The Terrapins enter the field on a nine-game winning streak, including those three wins and a second straight league title and the Big Ten Conference Tournament championship. Maryland hasn’t loss since a Feb. 8setback at Ohio State.
“Our team is really confident right now after winning the Big Ten regular season and the conference tournament,” said coach Brenda Frese. “We’re practicing really hard and trying to be the most prepared team going into the tournament. Our experience has really helped us. We’re looking forward to getting started.”
Frese has four seniors – Pavlech, Moseley, Howard and Tierney Pfirman. Moseley and juniors Walker-Kimbrough and Jones are all over 1,000 points in their careers, and there’s a wealth of experience to make another run at a title.
“We’ve made it to the Final Four the past two years so we’re looking to get past that and to the championship game,” said Jones, who leads the nation in field goal percentage (.672) and the Big Ten in rebounding (9.8 per game), while averaging 15.7 points.
Walker-Kimbrough leads the country, shooting 54 percent from 3-point range and she’s sixth in the Big Ten with 19.5 points per game. She also averages 5.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists, showcasing a versatile game that could end in All-America honors. Moseley chips in 11.4 points and 6.0 assists off the bench, and Pfirman averages 9.0 points and 4.8 rebounds.
Pfirman called the upcoming game or games in Xfinity “bittersweet. It’s tough going out there knowing this could be your last time playing in front of the fans.”
Changes on Frese’s staff, the graduation of Lauren Mincy, and the abrupt transfer of Lexi Brown in the offseason added to an air of uncertainty around this year’s team. Then Pfirman, playing the best basketball of her career, was lost for a time to an early season injury and Frese had to tinker with her rotation to find the right mix.
In some ways, those factors may have forged a tougher, stronger team this season. “This is the best team chemistry since I’ve been here,” said Pavlech, the sixth-year senior who has an overview.
“We went through a lot of adversity this year,” said Pfirman. “But with the coaches and the support staff we have here, we just stayed true to who we are. We have a foundation with the people in the locker room and around us. To do what we did was incredible, how far we’ve come.
Frese saw the same sort of thing going on with this team. “I love the consistency of our team when you talk about what we lost last year and what we were able to return to. I thought our bench really led the way with our juniors and seniors to go back-to-back years winning the Big Ten. It speaks volumes about this team.”
This marks Maryland’s 24th NCAA Tournament appearance and the 12th under Frese in her 14 seasons. Maryland is 41-22 (.651) all-time in the NCAA Tournament, and 29-10 (.744) under Frese.
The Terps are 14-2 in NCAA games in Xfinity Center, including two wins last year over New Mexico State and Princeton. This is the sixth straight season they’ve hosted an opening round. “It’s special to be able to play potentially your first two games in front of all your fans,” said Frese. “It’s hard to secure that home-court advantage. For us, we feed off the energy of our crowd.”
Frese had guided Maryland to seven Sweet Sixteens, six Elite Eights, three Final Fours and the 2006 NCAA title. Making such a run again, is about preparation and defense, according to Pavlech and her teammates. “In the NCAA Tournament, getting stops is going to get you farther,” she said.
Maryland would play the winner of that Washington-Penn game on March 21, and another win would send them to Lexington, Ky., for the Sweet Sixteen.