Brenda Frese grabbed a bag of salt and vinegar potato chips and walked around the locker room.
“I’m a little salty,” she said, placing a chip on her shoulder. Her stare made the message clear: You should be, too.
Frese found instant motivation the day President Barack Obama unveiled his picks for the NCAA women’s tournament. The leader of the country had picked eighth-seeded Princeton, the undefeated darlings of March Madness, to upset top-seeded Maryland in the second round. It did not matter that Obama was simply staying loyal to family; his wife, Michelle, is a Princeton alumna and his niece, Leslie, plays for the Tigers. Frese decided it needed to be put to good use, so in the locker room before the game, she placed chips on each of her players’ shoulders and waited for a reaction.
Lexie Brown looked around at her teammates and rolled her eyes half-heartedly, smiling.
“With her being a mom to little kids, she’s always coming up with new, sort of funny stuff where she’s trying to motivate us,” said Brown, Maryland’s point guard. “Sometimes it can feel like, ‘Why do they treat us like little kids?’”
But it works, Brown says. It works really well.
With a win over powerhouse Tennessee in the Elite Eight on Monday night, Maryland advanced to its third Final Four in eight years and the first back-to-back trip in school history. (The Terps lost in the semifinals last year to Notre Dame.) Frese has led Maryland to new heights through 13 seasons in College Park, highlighted by a national championship in 2006. Gutsy freshman guard Kristi Toliver’s three-pointer over the outstretched arm of Duke senior Alison Bales to force overtime in the ’06 title game launched Maryland into another stratosphere in women’s hoops, one where only elite teams are welcome. The Terps (34-2) have been to seven Sweet 16s under Frese, a run that prompted one D.C. sports blog to wonder if she is the best coach in an sport rich with tradition and talent. And yet Frese can’t help but wonder, “When are we going to feel validated as a team, as a program?”
Maryland might as well be the forgotten No. 1 seed of the four that advanced to Tampa. People are so fixated on Connecticut and its continued dominance, Notre Dame and its five consecutive trips to the national semis and South Carolina’s rise under Dawn Staley, one of the best guards to ever play the game, that the Terps don’t get talked about much, if at all.
“It’s funny, my husband and I were driving the other day and I was saying, ‘When’s it going to change?’ We’ve been to three Final Fours now, and we’re still the afterthought,” Frese said. “It’s a reality in terms of what you read [in media coverage], but you can definitely use it to your advantage.”
Frese, 43, is a master motivator. Besides a literal chip on her shoulder, there’s the annual season-long team theme (this year it’s “United We Can”) and a new tradition of postgame awards after every win, where Frese and her staff hand out props to players who have performed well (e.g. a bottle of Windex for whomever cleaned the glass best, a hard hat for whomever did the dirty work, etc). If Maryland can pull off the impossible and beat Connecticut (36-1) on Sunday, it might need to find a few new prizes. Although the chance to play for another title might be reward enough, especially considering no one thought this was possible.
Frese will be the first to admit that back in the preseason, she did not see this type of run from her roster. Maryland graduated five seniors last season including one of, if not the, best player in program history in do-everything forward Alyssa Thomas. She wasn’t sure what to expect from a mostly young team—the Terps start three sophomores, a junior and a senior—and a new conference, as Maryland began its inaugural season in the Big Ten. Two preseason losses, to unranked Washington State on the road and then perennial top five team Notre Dame, made her wonder what this group was in for.
Initially, she wasn’t wild about the different league. The Terps would have to get familiar with new programs and new arenas, and she worried it might negatively impact recruiting. But then Maryland won its first Big Ten game, beating Ohio State and the nation’s leading scorer Kelsey Mitchell, 87-78, and Frese’s phone flooded with text messages.
“I had no idea how many people were watching the Big Ten Network,” Frese said. “I’ve found that a lot of life changes, you resist them at first, but they work out well. From a recruiting standpoint, we are in so many more houses now. So many people have been able to watch us play and follow our season.”
What they’ve seen is an arc of growth. The Terps rolled through Big Ten play undefeated, entering the conference tournament with an 18-0 record. They survived three close games to earn the tournament championship. They don’t boast a superstar this year like they had previously with Thomas, a matchup problem for every defender. Last season the Terps were sometimes guilty of watching Thomas do the work instead of becoming a part of it. Now they’re balanced, with four players who score in double figures, led by Laurin Mincy (13.8 points, 3.4 assists).
A redshirt senior who’s battled back from two ACL tears, Mincy is a difference-maker when healthy. She has practically dragged her team to wins this season.
“She’ll do whatever we need,” Frese said, “whether it’s shoulder the scoring load or lock down the other team’s defender.”
The clichés are true, Mincy says. She feels the extra sense of urgency, knows the end of her college career is near. She just needs two more games to feel complete.
Brown, a sophomore point guard with a penchant for big plays in big moments—she’s known around the locker room as “Big Shot Brown”— has grown as a leader and a distributor, handing out 4.6 assists per game. The daughter of longtime NBA veteran and current Sacramento Kings assistant Dee Brown, Lexie says she was “raised in a household where we were taught to expect greatness. That’s all I know.” It’s why she spends her off days launching shots in the gym by herself, and hops on the treadmill whenever the Terps have free time on the road, anxious to improve her conditioning.
But Maryland’s X-factor and the Terps’ best chance of beating UConn will come down to sophomore guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough. A 5’11" slasher who can score from anywhere, Walker-Kimbrough “sets the tone” according to Frese, with an unmatched style and self-assurance that rubs off on teammates.
“She brings the energy, and when she’s focused and locked in, she brings us to a totally different level,” Mincy said. “She’s got a swagger like no one else. Her confidence lets people know when she’s in her element, no one can check her.”
UConn looked mostly invincible this season, at least until the first half of its Elite Eight game against Dayton. One of the best midmajor programs in the country, the Flyers used excellent dribble penetration to drive and kick to open shooters. They shot 51% from the floor in the first half, nailing seven threes on their way to a 44-43 halftime lead. The Huskies went on to win 91-70, though, but Maryland players studied the video and walked away believing UConn is beatable.
“They’re a great team, so of course they’re going to score,” Mincy said. “Basketball is about runs, and they’re going to go on theirs. But if you put your head down, they’re going to trample all over you. The entire game, we have to stay positive and believe.
“They’re the Goliath, and everyone else is the David," Mincy added. "But it’s fun that way.”
It’s also a memorable tale, the type that demands recognition. If Maryland can replicate it, maybe the Terps won’t be the afterthought. But then again, maybe that’s when they’re at their best.