Notre Dame of Maryland women’s basketball eyes second straight NCAA Tournament bid

For the previous two seasons, members of Notre Dame of Maryland women’s basketball wore warm-up shirts emblazoned with a “Hustle and heart” slogan. This winter, the players debuted tops with a “We over me” catchphrase they embrace.

“It’s not about your individual stats or what you do,” said senior shooting guard Chantel Curry, a Fallston graduate. “You can still do well individually, and we can still lose. So it’s about what we can do as a team.”

The Gators have embodied that mindset. With a 19-5 overall record and a 16-1 mark in the United East, they clinched the regular-season title, the top seed in the league tournament and a first-round bye to Monday’s quarterfinals even before Wednesday night’s regular-season finale at Wilson College.

Notre Dame of Maryland has a chance to match or exceed last season’s squad that set a single-season record for wins with 23 and captured the Colonial States Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament championships before losing to No. 16 seed Trinity in the first round of the NCAA Division III Tournament — only the second appearance in program history and first since 2007. The current group’s success has been welcomed by coach Kalin Wynn.

“I told the girls at the beginning of the season that overall, this team is more talented than last year’s team that won the championship,” he said. “It was just a matter of how quickly they jelled and learned how to play together.”

A return to the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament wasn’t guaranteed. After last season, the Gators lost two starters to the transfer portal — shooting guard Kori People, who averaged 17.6 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.9 steals and 2.6 assists, and point guard Alexis Durhman, who amassed 15 points, 5.6 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 2.5 steals. They also graduated two seniors — power forward Daija Fitchett (9.8 points, 10.6 rebounds) and small forward Ayana Brim (8.3 points, 4 rebounds).

Wynn, a Morgan State graduate who has guided Notre Dame of Maryland to a 73-29 record in four seasons of competition, added eight freshmen to the roster. Three of those first-year players — power forward Amani Watts, small forward Hillary Howard, and point guard Sariyah Waller — have started with junior shooting guard Amya Durham and senior combo guard Bethani Newbold, the only returning starter.

“We had to adapt and get the freshmen accustomed to our culture and the style of play we wanted to play,” Wynn said. “A lot of them didn’t come from programs that had the extensive work that we put into our program and the extensive knowledge and basketball IQ that we like for them to have. It was basically like starting all over again.”

Watts, a Severn native and Old Mill graduate, made perhaps the biggest impact, leading the team in both points (18.8) and rebounds (11.6) per game. But while contesting for an offensive rebound in the third quarter of an eventual 51-35 win at Bryn Athyn on Jan. 17, she tore the ACL in her right knee and underwent season-ending surgery Feb. 8.

“It’s disappointing, but it hasn’t affected me too much,” said Watts, who tore her left ACL in 2020. “I’ve been in this situation before where I couldn’t play. So I’m just trying to think of the positives of me coming back next year better and stronger.”

Watts’ absence has been filled by her teammates. Howard has averaged 22.7 points and 7 rebounds in her past three starts, and Curry has averaged 12.8 points and 6.3 rebounds over the same stretch.

“We told everyone that everybody else has got to step up now,” Wynn said. “Not one person is going to be able to do what she did. So we’ve got to do it by committee.”

One of the campaign’s highlights was a 14-game winning streak that tied a 30-year-old school record. But the run ended in a 55-52 loss to Cedar Crest College on Jan. 30 — an opponent the Gators had pummeled, 70-30, on Nov. 28.

“We knew we should have won that game,” Curry said. “It was a hard loss. So the next time we got in the gym, we just worked on everything and focused on the little things.”

Vowed Wynn: “We will use that game as motivation for the rest of this year.”

Another point of emphasis for Wynn is what he called “TLT,” or the little things. That term encompasses plays that don’t typically show up in box scores such as boxing out for rebounds, extending arms to discourage shots or passes, and diving for loose balls.

Wynn said the players have generally met his standards in that category. But he said he has had to reassure them, which he attributed to the team’s youth.

“This team is really good. They just have to believe it,” he said. “They’re not as confident in themselves as they should be at times. It’s a daily thing with us. There may be a lot of teaching, but there’s also a lot of praise when they do things correctly.”

If Notre Dame of Maryland advances to the NCAA Tournament, the team will do so without Watts. She acknowledged some disappointment over potentially missing out on that experience, but said she has faith in her teammates.

“I know they can do it with or without me,” she said. “I just have to be a good teammate whether I’m on the court or off it. It’s a different perspective for me now. I’m not playing, but I’m still a part of the team.”

While Watts predicted the Gators would reach the NCAA Tournament and win, Wynn declined to go that far. Until then, Curry said she anticipates the players and coaches will remain hungry.

“I think we’re not satisfied yet because we still want to win a ring,” she said. “But being the No. 1 seed makes us happy. We’re just not satisfied yet.”

Regular-season finale

Notre Dame of Maryland at Wilson College

Wednesday, 7 p.m.