With eight minutes to go in the final quarter of the Big Ten tournament championship game, Maryland women’s basketball was up 84-59 against Iowa.
As the Hawkeyes looked to shorten the Terps’ lead, sophomore forward Faith Masonius got her hands on the ball at the baseline under Iowa’s basket and chased after it, determined to keep the play inbounds. She then threw a pass behind her back to senior forward Chloe Bibby, who quickly got the ball to senior guard Katie Benzan at the top of the arc. Benzan dribbled the ball once and leapt to lob the ball all the way to the other end of the court to sophomore guard Ashley Owusu.
As Owusu took one step and went up to sink the layup, ESPN analyst LaChina Robinson said, “This team you’re watching today, this is a No. 1 seed.”
However, on Monday night, the NCAA named Maryland as the No. 2 seed in the Hemisfair region. The Terps erupted into cheers and danced around on a stage set in the Xfinity Center court when they heard their name called, thrilled to be a part of the excitement. However, they understood there was chatter around potentially giving them one of those four No. 1 seed spots.
“We would love to be a No. 1-seed, but we love the bracket that we’re in and we love how everything’s just set up, and we’re just humble and hungry and we’re just ready to go to work,” redshirt sophomore forward Mimi Collins said.
The Terps have built an impressive resume this season despite having some doubters along the way. Before the season began, both the Big Ten coaches and the media predicted Indiana as the winner of the conference. The coaches picked Maryland to finish second behind the Hoosiers and the media picked the Terps to finish third behind Indiana and Northwestern.
Contrary to preseason estimates, Maryland won sole possession of the Big Ten regular-season title and the Big Ten Tournament. The Terps head into March Madness with a 24-2 record, 17-1 in conference play.
The only game the Terps dropped to a Big Ten opponent was against then-No. 17 Ohio State. Maryland lost 88-86 but since then has been on a 13-game winning streak. In that time, no opponent has come within less than 10 points of the Terps and that includes the three games in the Big Ten tournament.
“We’ll just continue on as we always have and maybe we’ll pick up a few more believers out there,” head coach Brenda Frese said after winning the tournament title.
Now, the Terps move into the next stage of the season, again, not as the favorites.
Despite having the top scoring offense, three-point field goal percentage (.407) and assist/turnover ratio (1.69), in the nation, as well as the No. 3 field goal percentage (.493), the No. 5 assist total (20.4), the No. 6 scoring margin (+21.0) and the No. 8 free throw percentage (.789), the committee didn’t view the Terps as one of the top four teams in the country.
“You can sleep on us all day. I mean, numbers don’t lie, stats don’t lie and when you watch our team, I mean film doesn’t lie,” Collins said. “So we’re just gonna continue to be humble and hungry. ... anyone that’s watching the tournament, don’t sleep on Maryland.”
Perhaps part of the reason Maryland continues to be underestimated is that the Big Ten as a whole has been undervalued this season. In the NET, the SEC is the No. 1 conference. The Big Ten, on the other hand, is the fourth-ranked conference and hasn’t always been the most competitive in past years.
However, in the final AP Top 25 poll released Monday, five teams in the Big Ten were ranked and two others received votes. In addition to Maryland, Northwestern, Rutgers, Michigan State, Indiana, Michigan and Iowa all received bids to the NCAA Tournament, tied for the second-most from a single conference this year, making it one of the toughest leagues in the country.
Frese has referred to playing in a conference as tough as the Big Ten as being “battle-tested” every night.
Ahead of her 19th season with the Terps, graduation of three star players and transfers out of the program posed a challenge for Frese, as all five of the 2019-20 Maryland starters left for one of those two reasons.
However, between the leadership of sophomore guards Owusu and Diamond Miller along with transfers Benzan, Bibby and Collins, who was eligible for the first time this season, Frese was able to lead her team to another dominant year in the Big Ten.
Coming off the bench, Masonius, Cal senior forward transfer Alaysia Styles and freshman forward Angel Reese have made key contributions as well.
Between the five starters and Reese, six players on this Maryland team average 10 or more points per game, which no other team in the nation can say. Benzan leads the country with her three-point field goal percentage (.506) and Owusu is fourth in assists (151).
Maryland’s unselfish play and love for one another both on and off the court has been apparent all season, and they have been talking about March and their championship desires since before the season started in November.
“I’m really happy, especially with the group that we are with,” Reese said. “I’m just so happy to be with this team, I wouldn’t rather it be with anybody else, so I’m ready to go to San Antonio to get right to work.”
As the 2-seed in the Hemisfair region, the Terps are set to take on 15-seed Mount St. Mary’s, one of three intrastate matchups in the first round of the tournament. The winner of that game will move on to face the winner of 7-seed Alabama and 10-seed North Carolina.
“I mean, we’re really excited, obviously, we like our bracket,” Frese said. “We’re obviously ready for anyone we face... but this team is really focused, really motivated and we can’t wait to get to San Antonio.”
The Terps have been a No. 2-seed eight times: 1982, 1992, 1993, 2006, 2007, 2012, 2016 and now, 2021.
In 2007, the Terps made it to the second round, in 2012 to the Sweet Sixteen, In 1992 and 2016, Maryland advanced to the Elite Eight and in 1982, the Terps advanced to the Final Four.
In 2006, the Maryland women’s basketball team defeated Duke in overtime to bring home its first NCAA title.
That year, North Carolina, Ohio State, Duke and LSU were the 1-seeds and to get to win the title, the Terps had to defeat North Carolina in the Final Four then Duke in the championship game. The Terps’ only NCAA title came that year. A year the committee named Maryland a 2-seed.
“I’ve told this team, I mean, it was very similar to ‘06 when no one was mentioning Maryland, and I’m okay with that because every step of the way we get to just show through our play,” Frese said after Maryland’s Big Ten tournament title victory over Iowa.
The difference between the 2006 National Champions and this year’s Terrapin squad? Frese thinks they might be even better.
“This team is probably even more potent. A little more, you know, even more depth,” the head coach said. “Just the unselfishness they play with...I think really separates this team into another category.”
Correction: This article originally stated that the Terps hadn’t won by less than 12 points over their win streak. This has been fixed to say 10 points.