After tumultous off-season, Maryland women right back at top of Big Ten

Despite a tumultous off-season, Maryland's women's basketball team returns as the Big Ten favorite and a challenger to UConn this season.
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The off-season kept getting worse for Brenda Frese’s Maryland program. Leading scorer Laurin Mincy graduated. Two assistant coaches took jobs elsewhere. Second-leading scorer Lexie Brown transferred abruptly. Another assistant, Bryce McKey, resigned in the wake of sexual abuse allegations that followed him from a previous job.

But after all that, when the Big Ten released its preseason poll last week, the Terrapins found themselves right where they were last season: No. 1 in the conference.

With three starters—including double-digit scorers Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Brionna Jones—returning from a 34-3 team, Maryland appears primed to contend for its second straight Big Ten title and third consecutive Final Four berth.

“They’ve been through the wars, they’ve been through the trenches, they have the mentality,” Frese said at Big Ten Media Day last week. “The sky’s the limit, and it’s truly upon them in terms of everything we can accomplish.”

The Terrapins boast one of the nation’s most experienced starting fives, with a projected tip-off lineup featuring four seniors and a junior. Not only have Frese’s core pieces played a lot of college basketball, they have done so at an extremely high level: Maryland is 88-18 over the past three seasons and last year earned a No. 1 seed thanks to an undefeated Big Ten record. Before a semifinal loss to eventual-champion Connecticut, Frese’s team had won 28 straight games.

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The 2014-15 Terrapins featured impressive balance, with four players scoring between 12.4 and 13.5 points per game. Eleven women saw at least eight minutes of action per game, and seven led the team in scoring at least once. They played hard, and fundamentally sound, leading the Big Ten in offensive rebounds and committing the sixth-fewest turnovers in the conference despite playing at a decidedly up-tempo pace. In the words of Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer, “There’s nothing exotic about what they’re doing, and that’s a good thing.” The Terrapins’ dynamic will change slightly with two top scorers gone, but the team-first ethos should persist. “We play with a lot of passion and energy, and we play for one another,” senior center Malina Howard said. “We all love one another, and when you love each other, it’s easier to play for one another.”

At the center of this year’s Maryland squad is an accomplished senior class hungry for one more chance at the national title that has proved elusive for two straight seasons. Jones, who posted 12.4 points and a team-best 8.9 rebounds per game last season, headlines the group, with Howard, feisty fifth-year point guard Brene Moseley and versatile forward Tierney Pfirman poised to assume larger roles. Frese has no reason to question their preparedness—each member of the senior quartet averaged double-digit minutes per game each of the last two seasons. The coach says the group’s character, more than anything, gives her confidence entering her 14th season in College Park.

“When you talk about this group, all they know how to do is work,” Frese said. “They have that workmanlike mentality. And when you're able to pass that down, now going into year 14 of your program and it's the players and their consistency and their work ethic and their habits that really kind of establish what your season's going to look like.”

Maryland’s veteran leadership becomes even more important in the context of a coaching staff in flux. With former assistants Tina Langley and Marlin Chinn now the head coaches at Rice and Florida International, respectively, and McKey having resigned, the Terrapins’ longest-tenured Frese sidekick has been in the program for only one year. That means the team’s veterans must be especially proactive in mentoring its young players, including incoming McDonald’s All-American forwards Kiah Gillespie and Brianna Fraser. “I’m not going to lie, it’s been quite the change,” Frese said of the coaching turmoil. “Our players have done a phenomenal job assisting, which we needed them to do.”

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Frese says she has been impressed with how her players handled the off-season adversity, with sights set firmly on their Nov. 14 season-opener against UMass-Lowell and the promising season that will follow it. After a manageable non-conference slate that includes games against 2015 NCAA tournament teams Syracuse and Pittsburgh, the Terrapins will aim for vengeance Dec. 28 in New York, when they’ll take on Connecticut with last year’s season-ending 81-58 loss at the front of their minds.

After that measuring-stick contest, Maryland will embark on a second Big Ten season, with hopes of repeating the success of its first. Not that sweeping through the conference will be enough for a veteran-laden roster still smarting from back-to-back close-enough-to-taste-the-title seasons.

“We just want to keep getting better,” said Moseley, the point guard. “We came up short, and we’re just thankful we have another year.”