BOSTON (AP)—During Maryland’s last visit to this city, for a regular-season game against Boston College, coach Brenda Frese took her team on a surprise bus trip.
The destination was undisclosed.
The players were puzzled.
But when they unloaded at the new Boston Garden, the site of the NCAA women’s Final Four, the message was clear.
“If you want to come back here, the next time will be for the Final Four,” Maryland guard Shay Doron recalled on Monday, a day before the Terrapins play Duke for the NCAA title. “That feeling was unbelievable. You just want to get back here no matter what.”
Maryland (33-4) reached the title game by beating top-ranked North Carolina in the semifinals Sunday—its second victory this year over the Tar Heels, a team no one else beat even once. But the groundwork was laid much earlier, when Frese took over the once-proud program in 2002.
The original power in the Atlantic Coast Conference and a charter member of the NCAA Final Four, 25 years ago, Maryland won five of the ACC’s first six tournaments but hadn’t broken .500 in the conference in five years before Frese arrived.
“First, it is my job to keep reminding people of history, because we feel like it’s pretty special at Maryland,” Frese said. “I think people forget, since it was in the 1980s, that Maryland still owns the most ACC titles and has done some pretty special things.”
So Frese didn’t talk about making baby steps back to greatness.
“From Day 1, it’s always been about an ACC championship, the NCAA championship,” Doron said. “I think it was just making us believe that we can be a part of something different that nobody in the country can say they’ve ever done … going from a 10-18 team to three years later playing in the Final Four.
“I love bursting people’s expectations and proving them wrong and this team does it day-in, and day-out, every single year I’ve been here.”
After going 10-18 (4-12 ACC) in her first season, Maryland won 18, 22 and a school-record 33 games this season under Frese. And when the Terrapins visited the TD Banknorth Garden before their Jan. 5 game against BC, it wasn’t too improbable that they would be back.
“None of us knew where we were going,”’ center Crystal Langhorne said. “We were coming from practice and I’m like, ‘This isn’t the way back to the hotel.”’
Inside the building, even though it was suited out for hockey, players stretched out in the seats and let the atmosphere soak in.
“When we were here, it was kind of like, ‘Ah, let’s enjoy this moment,”’ forward Laura Harper said, leaning back in her chair and putting her hands behind her head.
“I think it was a powerful move. It was very inspirational. To be able to sit and look out on the court, it was awesome. Everyone who has (instant messaging) has been putting ‘Boston’ in their messages since the beginning of the season. Just ‘Boston’; that’s it.
“It’s kind of like a dream and now this dream’s come true.”
Well, not yet.
First comes another No. 1 seed: Duke (31-3), which is trying to earn its first national championship in its fourth trip to the Final Four since 1999. The Blue Devils also visited Boston College’s Chestnut Hill campus this season, but coach Gail Goestenkors opted not to make a special trip to see the championship site.
“I’ve done that in the past several years and I felt like that put more pressure on my kids, honestly,” she said.
“I guess I’ve let that pressure go. I’ve let that worry go about winning the national title. I feel like we’re going to win it at some point. I know we’re going to win it at some point. So that’s given me great freedom, great confidence.
“I think in the past perhaps I wanted it so badly for the team that I tried to force it to happen, and I found out that that’s not really possible.”
Instead, Coach G will rely on frontcourt stars Alison Bales and Mistie Williams to take back whatever advantage Maryland has with its speed. The ACC rivals already have played three times this year, and Maryland has improved each time—losing by 18, losing by 10 and then winning by eight in the semifinals of the ACC tournament.
“I could tell you what each of them ate for breakfast this morning,” Doron said. “Both teams know each other very well.
“In the past, they were just better, honestly. And now they’re not better, we’re at equal strength and that’s why our games have been so close this year.”