Maryland women’s basketball believes ‘March Madness is made for underdogs’

It was never easy. Of course it wasn’t, even if the Maryland women’s basketball team won 26 or 29 or 34 games so routinely that its achievements felt as matter of fact as rolling out of bed in the morning.

Maybe coach Brenda Frese’s Terps needed a season like this one — living on the NCAA Tournament bubble, taking double-digit drubbings from ranked opponents — to remind them and us how abnormal that clockwork success really was.

No. 10 seed Maryland won’t be the center of attention when it begins NCAA play Friday evening against Iowa State. The Terps will play on Stanford’s home court, hoping to pull an upset just so they can face the Cardinal with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line. But they’ve accepted this unfamiliar underdog role with the belief that their story is not over, that they’re still capable of making a loud noise on the biggest stage in their sport.

“We decided to stick together and not fall apart,” said junior guard Shyanne Sellers, who leads Maryland in scoring and assists and ranks second in rebounds and steals. “Where teams start to fall apart toward the end of the season — you get tired, your body starts to hurt more and more — this team just really tried to push through it. I feel like March Madness is made for the underdogs.”

They proved it to themselves when they thumped top-seeded Ohio State, 82-61, in the Big Ten Tournament to wipe away any thought they might miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010. Even before that, they felt something building when they went shot for shot with Iowa and the magnificent Caitlin Clark in an eight-point loss on the first weekend in February. They had yet to beat a ranked foe at that point, but they’ll tell you they never stopped believing they would.

“We knew we could get there,” sophomore guard Bri McDaniel said. “We had a rough patch. We lost our main scorers, so we just had to figure out the little kinks, and now, we’ve figured it out.”

The lineup that beat Ohio State wasn’t deep but featured five starters capable of scoring in double digits and shaped by abundant postseason experience. Such a team could be dangerous to any opponent on a given night.

“It confirmed we could battle with anyone,” McDaniel said of the Terps’ signature win. “We were always on the cusp of winning a game [like that]. It was little lapses that made us not win those games, so once we put a full 40 minutes together, it helped us realize, ‘Oh, we can battle with those teams. We can still be that Maryland team that everyone expected us to be.'”

If this season forced Frese to reach for different parts of her tool kit, she did not let on Wednesday as her team prepared to board a bus to the airport. “The thing that got us here was just staying the course and putting our head down,” she said. “Consistently relying on our defense, relying on playing together on the offensive end. Really, nothing changes for us; it’s just a seed in front of our name.”

Maryland lost a pair of WNBA first-round draft picks, Diamond Miller and Abby Meyers, from last year’s 28-7 NCAA regional finalist, so perhaps a slow start — the Terps were No. 14 in the Associated Press preseason poll but lost three of their first five, including blowouts to South Carolina and UConn — was predictable. But Frese had reloaded so many times over the years.

“I think we were expecting some of those players that had been waiting in the shadows, that it was going to come quicker than it did,” she said. “But we had a lot of pieces that had to form together and a lot of players who had to understand their roles.”

This year’s Big Ten, fronted by heavyweights Iowa, Ohio State and Indiana and loaded with tournament-bound teams, was an unforgiving proving ground for a group still in chrysalis.

But Sellers figures Maryland’s 13 losses don’t define a team that found a new level in the Big Ten Tournament. “Peaking at the right time!” she screamed into a television camera after the Terps dispatched Ohio State.

Maryland lost by 10 to Nebraska the next day, getting outrebounded and committing 16 turnovers. Consistency remains elusive for a team that has no time left to find itself. But the Terps believe they’re dangerous, and that’s at least part of the battle.

“I always knew we were a tournament team,” Sellers said. “A lot of people don’t want to play us. When they find out they’re in the same bracket as us — everyone knows that Maryland’s not a 10 seed. We’ve had a lot of people play in the Elite Eight on this team, make tourney runs. This is a good vet team.”

In Iowa State, the Terps will face an opponent that also expects to be in the NCAA Tournament every year and also seems to be peaking after an uneven start. The Cyclones, led by 6-foot-3 freshman center Audi Crooks and 6-2 freshman forward Addy Brown, had won six straight before falling to Texas in the Big 12 Tournament.

“Audi Crooks, we recruited; she’s a talent and a really difficult matchup when you talk about that inside post presence she has,” Frese said. “And then every single one of their players can shoot the 3 … so it’s a tall task. I think both teams are trending in the right direction.”

The era when perennial winners such as Maryland could cruise from one season to the next is ending. Even a coach as established as Frese, who has fallen short of the NCAA Tournament twice in 22 seasons at Maryland, has to work the transfer portal at the same time she’s preparing her team for the most important games of the season.

That context, in which every season feels like a brand new puzzle, makes the coach more appreciative that this year’s group persevered to find a winning identity.

“It’s so hard to make it into the NCAA Tournament, especially now, with your roster changing every year,” Frese said. “So this is just us understanding that it’s never something you take for granted.”

NCAA Tournament first round

No. 10 seed Maryland vs. No. 7 seed Iowa State

At Stanford’s Maples Pavilion

Friday, 7:30 p.m.