The 2013-14 Maryland women's basketball team embarked on an incredibly special journey to the Final Four in Nashville. Umterps.com sat down with head coach Brenda Frese for her thoughts on the Terps' run.
When you reflect back on the special run to the Final Four, what comes to your mind?
One of the first things that comes to mind for me is that I’m extremely happy for everyone else in our program that didn’t get to experience the 2006 run. This season was great for me too, but I really wanted the rest of them to feel what it’s like to reach a Final Four. I’m lucky that some really good people surround me and they all work so hard for us. That’s why I wanted it so much for them. When we won the regional final, I wanted to make sure I enjoyed seeing how happy everyone else was and soak in those moments.
I was also really happy so much of my family could be there to celebrate. One of my very favorite photos is the one where my boys, Markus and Tyler, are on the ladder with me. There’s so much to think about in that photo. The boys are now six and they do have an appreciation for what the team accomplished. And I think for my husband and I, with Tyler finishing his chemo treatments in December, it was like we got to cut down nets twice this season.
Thinking of the team itself, when we started in the preseason, I thought it was a group that had a chance to make a run to the Final Four. However, we had a lot of growing to do in many areas. Individual players had to develop, some had to return from injuries, we didn’t really know who our leaders would be, players had to sacrifice minutes and maybe most importantly, we had to learn to trust each other. Also, we knew we had some talented freshmen, but it’s hard to convey to them how intense and long the season is. You can really only learn that by experience.
The way our ACC Tournament ended, I wasn’t sure we’d be able to put it all together. What really helped us was that week after ACCs, we had a lot of motivated people. And it was just us in the gym with no outside distractions. I was tough on our team in practice, but we have a lot of bright players and they understood why I took that approach.
One of the most satisfying feelings was being able to help Alyssa Thomas get to a Final Four. She is such an incredibly great player, from a tremendous family, who gives us every ounce she has to give. If we hadn’t have made it to Nashville, it wouldn’t have diminished her career in any way, but getting there was just so deserved for her. I made sure she got to keep one of the nets we cut down in Louisville.
Do you have any favorite memories from the season?
The win at Louisville will go down as one of my all-time favorites and probably in my top two with the 2006 national championship in Boston. The biggest reason why is everything our team had to overcome to win in a hostile environment when the stakes were highest. Going into the tournament, most experts were saying Louisville was one of the five best teams in the country. A trip to the Final Four was on the line and we had to beat a higher seed on their home court with almost 15,000 intense fans in the building against us. I loved it and I wanted all those challenges. That’s how you find out what you’re made of and I’ve always thought what separates great teams from the rest is the ability to win tough games on the road.
The pace, energy and intensity of that game were unrelenting from the opening tip to the final buzzer. We were able to win because we trusted each other and put to use the lessons we’d learned all season long.
And I can add in that my family was there to support us. Some of them drove nine hours from Iowa. It’s an incredibly good feeling to look up in the stands and see the most special people in my life.
The win over Tennessee in the Sweet 16 was also very special. Our staff really had them scouted well and the team executed what we wanted to do. Tennessee had just won the SEC Tournament, had a deep roster and was a #1 seed. Then you throw in all their tradition of being one of the game’s storied programs. Nobody from ESPN or even President Obama had us advancing past Tennessee. That’s where my “They’ll Know Our Name” pregame speech came from. Those pregame speeches don’t always work out like that, but I’m really glad that one did.
What were some of the crucial points of the season? Let’s start with the non-conference.
Our very first game, at South Florida, we had to find a way to win without Alyssa Thomas being a factor. She was in foul trouble immediately and only played about 10 minutes. She never got into the flow of the game.
South Florida was coming off an NCAA Tournament season and we were certain they were going to be a challenge. Our freshmen got thrown right into the fire and all three produced. I remember Lexie Brown and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough hitting huge shots to help us build the lead. And Brene Moseley and Laurin Mincy were big from the free throw line. We really had to grind that one out.
A couple games later we hosted Connecticut and went toe to toe with them for about 25 minutes. We had a bad stretch, which you just can’t do against them, and the game got away from us. After that game, we put Lexie into the starting lineup
Our Puerto Rico trip was a lot of fun. We were originally scheduled to play a BCS/Top 25 type opponent, but they pulled out. Regardless, our team had a lot of good bonding time in the hot tub and on the beach.
Ohio State in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge had a lot of interesting dimensions to it. Especially considering we were kind of a member of both conferences to some extent. Ohio State was a stubborn team that just wouldn’t go quite go away, so they made us work. In the end, we take a lot of pride in the fact that we went a perfect 7-0 in our Challenge games. We beat some tough opponents and in some tough road locations during those seven games.
The conference season started in January. What stands out about that stretch of games?
It got off to a really good start. We beat a super-talented North Carolina team in Chapel Hill, in what was our last ACC game there. I was really happy for our players that they could put that win on their resumes.
We won our first four games, with the fourth being a real high-octane battle with Georgia Tech. After the game, I said something like our games with Georgia Tech over the years have been like going to the dentist and getting drilled. They were never easy and you always had to earn those wins.
Then we kind of hit the low point of our season, losing three games in a row. It was tough, but in a way it really helped us. Our whole season, one of the things we stressed with our team was being willing to be uncomfortable. I think it was a real learning experience for our young players to play at Virginia, which had some seniors that hadn’t had much success against us. They’re good players and they were really motivated. We learned the same thing in the loss at NC State. I also sensed after that game that some of our players felt like they had let us down and I liked that they wanted to feel some responsibility. And we wanted to do a better job of making sure they were prepared to be successful in those situations.
Sandwiched between those games was our home match-up with Notre Dame.
I had a lot of people hit me after that game to tell me what a fantastic game it was to watch. I just wish they would’ve watched us win. Kayla McBride hit a shot at the end that reminded me of something Kristi Toliver used to do to other people on that Comcast Center floor.
Sometimes in losses you can see little moments that give you an idea good things are ahead. I can think back to the Notre Dame and Connecticut games and in both, Lexie Brown had stretches where she really stepped up and looked like she belonged on that stage. So I think it was a really defining win for our team and her when in the midst of a three game losing streak, we faced a tough road game against Syracuse.
A little background - we had scheduled a practice time at Syracuse the day before our game. However, they informed us ESPN had taken over the Carrier Dome because of their men's game vs. Duke, so we couldn’t get on the floor. This is a place none of us had ever played. So we then got a time slot in their practice facility. A short while later, they informed us that their men’s team was bumping us from our practice time and they offered us a slot less than 24 hours before our game. As a general rule, we don’t have a real practice less than 24 hours before a game. So we didn’t practice and went into that game with only film and rest.
The gamble paid off big with Alyssa having a triple-double, Lexie putting up a career high 31 points and Shatori adding 17. It also was the game Brionna Jones moved into the starting lineup. She had really worked hard with our staff to get her fitness to the point that she could play major minutes coming off her ACL. She had 10 points in that game.
As the season went on, we won out at home, which you have to do to be a really good team. And we picked up some wins at Miami and at Georgia Tech, which are not easy places to do that. All things considered, finishing third in the regular season was pretty good.
You've always stressed taking time to have fun and a lot of people saw that with the prank you pulled on Alyssa Thomas. Take us through that.
A lot of people saw the video of the prank we pulled on Alyssa Thomas towards the end of the regular season. Basically what happened was we knew we were going to raise her name and number to the rafters in Comcast Center after our last regular season game. Actually, I probably could’ve told you that after her sophomore season. We hadn’t told Alyssa about it.
If you know Alyssa, then you know she’s a practical joker and loves to get people. So I thought what better way to tell her about this honor than to prank her? It’s something she would respect and appreciate. I had to keep it quiet, though, because if you tell too many people, the secret gets out. We tipped off our Under the Shell crew, because we thought this could be classic. It ended up working to perfection, and she got me back when she filled my office with 1000 balloons.
This is one of those ways we try to keep things fun and how I always want our players to feel comfortable with me and know that I’m not one of those aloof coaches.
You touched on the team regrouping after the ACC Tournament, but can you expand more on the postseason?
One thing I can admit right up front is that after we crashed and burned in the ACC Tournament, I had no idea whether we would figure it out or not. We all left the Greensboro Coliseum knowing we didn’t play Maryland basketball. I thought a lot about it and I didn’t want to have any regrets when the season was over.
So I decided that we were going to be very demanding on the players in the practices leading up to the NCAA Tournament. The thing with that is you can’t guarantee how they will respond. This group accepted the challenge and somewhere in there we all started to trust each other.
When we saw our NCAA Tournament bracket revealed, we all thought we had a chance to make a run. We still hadn’t played our best game as a team and we thought we could match-up with anyone in our region. So, our staff got to work right away breaking down each opponent. I can’t say enough good things about how hard they each work and that they each really care about their work.
One of the biggest questions we faced all season long was who would be our other scorers besides Alyssa? From the start, Lexie Brown really was assertive. She had 21 in the Army game and that was a really good sign. Against Texas, it was one of those games where we would have an eight point lead or so, but just couldn’t get that next run to really break the game open. What was good was that while Alyssa couldn’t get going in the first half, other players stepped up. I thought Laurin Mincy was big for us, as were Lexie, Alicia and Shatori. And then fortunately Alyssa found her rhythm in the second half.
It’s really great playing in the Comcast Center in those games. It’s definitely an advantage, but the one thing I’ve learned is that playing a home game in the NCAA Tournament carries its own kind of pressure. The players want so badly to perform well for our fans. Sometimes it can work against you. That being said, I’ll take it every year.
Coming off that game, it was apparent to us that nobody was paying attention to us or picking Maryland to go any farther. And as a coach, I loved it. That’s an easy one to sell to the team and get that chip on their shoulders.
When we got to our hotel in Louisville, right next door was a building with Muhammad Ali’s name on it. Playing off the idea that we weren’t being respected, our staff put together a hype video for our team that used Ali’s fight against Ernie Terrell. In that fight, Ali felt like he was being disrespected, because Terrell wouldn’t call him Muhammad Ali. Instead he kept referring to Ali as Cassius Clay. So during the fight, Ali would hit him and ask “What’s my name?” That mantra- “What’s my name?” really registered with our team.
So when we took the court against Tennessee, we were very motivated.
It’s one of the best games I can remember our team taking our game plan and executing it pretty much from start to finish. Alyssa’s performance that day was one for the ages.
People remember my “We didn’t come here to kiss the ring” pregame speech. There’s a lot behind that mentality. It not only applied to the fact that people were picking us to lose, but really how we’ve tried to build the Maryland program since I got hired here. When we first started it was suggested to us that we couldn’t recruit the top players in the country, because they belonged to programs like Tennessee and Connecticut. I never listened to that and still don’t today. We truly believe Maryland is as good or better than any other place. Fortunately, we’ve had some really good players believe in us.
We hadn’t faced Tennessee since November 2005 in the Virgin Islands.
That was a heck of a game when Tennessee was #1 in the nation. We had battled them for various recruits, which always adds spice to a match-up. In that game, we had a chance with under 10 seconds to go to win, but it didn’t work out. Nine years went by before our two programs stepped on the court to face each other again. This time, it went our way.
Our team was really excited after the Tennessee win and that’s one of those moments in time you want to make sure you appreciate and share.
We also wanted to make sure they weren’t satisfied. Then it was Louisville. They were really good, playing on their home court and the LSU team they beat in the Sweet 16 had some injuries that made it really hard for them.
In that game vs. LSU, we got a first hand look at the great crowd support Louisville gets at home. Their fans are really rabid. So beating them in a regional final was going to really require us to be focused and mentally tough. One thing I try to remind our team is that no matter how many fans are against us, none of them are going to score any points. It’s still going to come down to what happens on the court.
The first 15 minutes of the game, we did some really good things. Then the last five minutes or so of the first half, we had some live ball turnovers that gave away easy points and we went into the half trailing. I felt like as long as we could clean up those turnovers, we’d be ok. It was also huge for us that Katie Rutan and Lexie Brown got going offensively.
We really started to get a grip on the game, but I always say that in a road environment like that, you have to be up by 10 around the 8:00 mark to have a really good chance to win. I looked up at the scoreboard around that time and we were up nine.
I was certain Louisville still had another run in them. What was really good for us was that we had multiple players step up and make free throws in the final eight minutes or so. We had been up and down during the season with our free throw shooting. We do this drill in practice that really punishes the team when they miss pressure free throws and it paid off for us. All the credit goes to the players.
Louisville was the team we saw in in the Second Round in 2012 and the team everyone knows - they don't lay down.
Schimmel hit a flurry of really tough threes. When Alyssa was at the free throw line for those last shots, the arena was as loud as it gets. That must be what its like in those big men’s games. And people were doing whatever they could to distract her. Our kids said the rim and the floor were shaking it was so loud. Then that last shot by Schimmel seemed like it was in the air forever. When it missed, it was one of those odd situations where about 99% of the people in the building were sad, but our 1% was elated.
We celebrated on the court for a long time in what was a mostly empty arena. Like I said earlier, the best part was seeing the happiness in everyone in our program, their families, the band and our fans.
After all the hugs, media and showers were over, we went to the airport. We had a charter flight waiting for us that should’ve gotten us home by midnight. However, the plane had electrical problems and we didn’t get home until 4 a.m. So nobody got any sleep and the players had class a little later. At the time, we were all going on adrenaline, and it was the best feeling in the world.
It was a tough turnaround for everyone because we got back to College Park between 4 and 5 a.m., then left 36 hours later for Nashville. Some of the staff just stayed at Comcast. We had an unbelievable send-off before we shipped out.
Everyone in Nashville was so welcoming and eager to help. We are so grateful for each of them.
We talk a lot about savoring every moment and I know our kids and our staff did just that. From the signs at the hotel and the arena with our logo, to the salute and dinner, to shooting the ESPN promos, our kids enjoyed every moment and truly understood they were one of four teams left. That's what makes it all worth it.