COLLEGE PARK – The Maryland women’s basketball team, their Head Coach Brenda Frese and a large group of Terps fans gathered at Heritage Hall at the Xfinity Center on March 18 for a Selection Monday watch party to find out Maryland’s seeding and first opponent in the NCAA Tournament.
There was just one problem, though ESPN, citing a technical error, had mistakenly released the bracket a few hours before it was scheduled to be revealed.
Instead of being surprised alongside Frese and the Maryland faithful players mingled with fans and posed for pictures knowing all along that the 28-4 Terps had earned a No. 3 seed and would host Radford University on March 23. Maryland was put into the Albany region along with other competitive teams, such as Connecticut, Tennessee and Louisville.
The Terps had just finished practice when the news broke about the premature reveal.
“At first I was surprised, I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ Because you know the week leading up to it you see different brackets, but you know they’re not real,” said junior forward Stephanie Jones of the moment she learned about the leaked bracket. “At first I thought, ‘This can’t be real.’ To miss the opportunity of seeing your name called… it was different.”
“I’d never heard of something like that happening. It kind of ruined the whole surprise,” said freshman forward Shakira Austin. “We made it to the tournament and at the end of the day; that’s all that matters is that we made it.”
The Terps clinched their ninth consecutive NCAA Tournament bid after winning the Big Ten regular season title and appearing in their fifth straight Big Ten Championship game, a match that ended in a 90-76 loss against Iowa. Meanwhile, the No. 14 seeded Highlanders took home both the Big South regular season title and conference tournament.
The last time Radford faced Maryland in the women’s NCAA Tournament, most of the players who will take the court on March 23 hadn’t been born yet. The year was 1996, the Terps had come away victorious, and Radford would endure a 23-year drought before the Highlanders made it back to the big dance.
“They won their conference championship so they’re obviously a good team,” said guard Taylor Mikesell, who earned Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors this season. “Everybody in March, the competition is elevated. They earned their way to be there just as much as we did.”
Maryland certainly earned its way to the tournament after a tremendous season that opened with a 12-game-winning streak and several double-digit victories over Big Ten conference foes, but ask any Terp what sparked this dominant performance and they’ll mention one thing: team chemistry.
Frese and every player greeted fans on Monday while wearing shirts emblazoned with the word “Chemistry” and a bright red letter “M.” With just 10 players on the team, the Terps are a close-knit group that spends a lot of time together on and off the court.
“We all have that mentality of winning, and that’s what brings us together,” said Austin. “All the obstacles that we overcome, it’s because we’re together and we know that nobody can stop us when we’re all one.”
“I’m as happy for their success as I am for my own,” said Mikesell. “I think that says a lot about our team chemistry. We have a lot of people that want to win and I think when you have an ultimate goal and people that want to achieve that as a unit, it just brings you all together.”
Frese said the Terps are fully prepared to play in the tournament and that she will be relying on her veteran upperclassmen players to lead the younger players.
“There’s a reason why they’ve won 28 games this year. It’s because they’ve been selfless, they’re for each other and they want to continue to do great things,” said Frese. “For us, this is the most exciting time, to work very hard to come back home and have the best fans in the country be there on Saturday.”