On Monday night, when Michigan State came on the screen as a 5 seed scheduled to play the first round in College Park, you knew that the next matchup revealed would feature Maryland as the 4 seed.
For Brenda Frese’s team gathered at Heritage Hall in Comcast Center, this confirmed what many people saw coming – that the selection committee had looked at Maryland’s three losses in the last five games, including two to teams ranked lower than them, and decided that the preseason No. 5 team in the nation was no longer deserving of the No. 2 or 3 seed they seemed destined for earlier in the season.
But this 2012-13 version of Maryland women’s basketball is no stranger to adversity and on a night when they celebrated their third straight selection to the NCAA tournament, they maintained confidence that they can make a deep run this year.
“Seeding is just a number,” Alyssa Thomas said. “When it comes to tournament time, anybody can win and the top teams do get knocked off. So you just have to come out and play your best basketball.”
“We’re all going into the NCAAs very confident,” Tianna Hawkins said. “Today after having a break for two days, we were very pumped up to get into practice today. We’re even more pumped to know who we play. It’s exciting.”
Who they will be playing is No. 13 seed Quinnipiac in a first round matchup on Saturday at 11:15 a.m. at Comcast in College Park, Md. The Bobcats (30-2, 18-0 NEC) are participating in their first NCAA tournament in program history after winning the Northeast Conference tournament. Their only losses have come to a pair of teams ranked just inside the RPI top-100: No. 98 Harftord and No. 99 Georgia Tech, both of whom the Terps have defeated this season.
Should they advance to the second round, Maryland would remain at home and face the winner of Michigan State vs. No. 12 seed Marist. The Spartans made the trip to College Park for last year’s tournament as a 10 seed, but fell to Louisville in the first round before they could get a shot at the Terps.
As the 4 seed in the Bridgeport region, Maryland is in line to potentially face top-seeded UConn in the Sweet Sixteen. The Huskies probably present the third most daunting challenge of all 1 seeds, but that still doesn’t make them much of reprieve for the Terps, who fell to UConn, 63-48 on Dec. 3 in Hartford, Conn.
“Not looking forward at all, just taking it one game at a time,” Thomas said when asked about a potential matchup with Geno Auriemma’s crew. “But if we do get to them, we played them early in the season and now we’re definitely a different team and they’re a different team, so it should be interesting.”
Thomas knows better than to look ahead, having already been on a fourth-seeded team in UConn’s bracket two years ago, only to be crushed by Sugar Rodgers and 5 seed Georgetown before ever getting to square off against that year’s tournament favorite in the Huskies. That loss to the Hoyas is one of only two Maryland has ever suffered in ten NCAA tournament games at Comcast.
Thomas though, was just a freshman then and this year’s Terp team is probably less likely to slip up before the Sweet Sixteen with their now two-time ACC Player of the Year leading the way.
If you look at the injuries you could dispute that assessment, especially now that we know Tierney Pfirman has mononucleosis and we don’t know when she’ll be back. But, since their healthy players have had the opportunity to rest and regroup and since they know how to win with small numbers, Maryland may actually have a chance to make the deep tournament run they were expecting to make when they came in at No. 5 to start the season.
And it’s not just Thomas they have to rely on. It goes without saying that Hawkins has become a star in her own right this year, and Katie Rutan, Chloe Pavlech, Alicia Devaughn and Malina Howard are all difference makers who can step up at any time.
And with Sequoia Austin playing quality minutes, Maryland has a seven-player rotation. That may seem short, but, with the endurance Thomas, Rutan and Pavlech have shown, the Terps have been able to make it work.
Eight would be great; six would be really tough – as we saw in the first Wake Forest game this year, when both Austin and Pfirman were out. Seven is what the Terps have as of right now and they’re going to roll with it.
But that means that, in order for them to be successful, all seven need to know their role and play it well. Rutan in particular has an important role seeing as she has emerged as the team’s third leading scorer. In addition, she is the only current Terp to have now been on four NCAA tournament rosters, which means she has made the big dance every year she has been in college.
Hawkins and Essence Townsend missed the tournament as freshmen, and none of the other Terps – including senior Caitlin Adams who came over from Maryland volleyball – has been a member of a collegiate basketball team for more than three years.
Last year Rutan didn’t play in the tournament because she sat out the whole year after transferring from Xavier. However, the experience that came from watching that Elite Eight run from the sideline remains. Kaite was also a part of an Elite Eight run that she actually played in as a Musketeer freshman, as well as a second round exit her sophomore year. In her six career NCAA tournament games, Rutan has averaged 7.8 points per game, including a pair of 15-point performances.
“I can use my experiences with both teams,” Rutan said when asked how she could help out Maryland’s younger players in the NCAA tournament. “There’s been different ways that I’ve ended seasons in the NCAA tournament, so just learning on that and teaching them within games just to slow it down and play our game and not focus on the outside.”
Rutan, who will truly be back on the NCAA tournament stage for the first time since transferring, also said: “It feels great to be in a Maryland jersey and going to the tournament.”
The two main tournament newcomers who will need Rutan, Thomas, Hawkins and DeVaughn’s guidance will be Pavlech and Howard, though Pfirman will certainly be turned to as well if she returns.
Pavlech has had some big moments this year and seems to have had more time in the spotlight than her fellow Ohio native Howard, who was the far more anticipated recruit. But Malina, despite being the only active Terp other than Austin and Adams without a single start, is just as big a puzzle piece and just as versatile a scorer inside and out as anybody on the team.
At 6-4, Howard is listed as a center and although she doesn’t take a ton of threes, she is very efficient when she does shoot from long range. She is 8 for 18 on the year from beyond the arc, which gives her the best 3-point shooting percentage on the team at 44.4 percent.
When asked what she brings to the table as an x-factor, Howard said that for her it’s about “being as supportive of everyone and as helpful as I can. And knocking down shots and defending – I think that’s important, especially once we get into tournament time, being able to make stops on defense.”
Rutan also talked about what she contributes to the team and definitely gave the impression that she sees herself as more than just a shooter.
“I think it starts with my communication,” Rutan said. “I’m really talkative, as everyone knows. Of course [I] knock some shots down and take some charges, but I think it all starts with the communication and that’s what will help us get deeper in the tournament.”
Maryland women’s basketball’s theme this year is: “All in to Win,” a phrase that appeared on the shirts each of the players was wearing Monday night. They may be injury-depleted, but “All in to Win” captures what makes them strong: the fact that they play together.
And because each of the players they do put out there has proven they are capable of stepping up, it would be impossible to predict exactly who is going to be the x-factor on any given night for the Terps in the upcoming NCAA tournament.