by Scott Gleeson | @ScottMGleeson
Maryland women’s basketball coach Brenda Frese’s always-intense facial expression turns from energetic to emotional when asked about “Team Tyler.”
Last fall, members of the Terrapins’ 2006 national championship team got together to form the foundation in response to Frese’s two-year old son, Tyler Thomas, being diagnosed with leukemia in September of 2010.
The Team Tyler Foundation aims to raise money for leukemia research and patients at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. In a Jan. 6 matchup vs. Georgia Tech, Maryland celebrated Leukemia Awareness Night. Within the last few months, Tyler has been clear of leukemia cells.
“It was overwhelming,” said Frese. “It was very special to have that ’06 team develop the foundation. Now, to be a part of it—bringing awareness to cancer and leukemia, to help make a difference, is what it’s all about.”
Frese was taken back by the gesture from her former players, but was hardly surprised by their family-like outpouring.
“That team will always have a special place in my heart,” Frese said. “It helps you realize that it’s about more than basketball, and those are the type of players that we bring in here—that type of character, when they’re selfless and care so much about others.”
While Frese gets emotional talking about her national title team, she becomes elated talking about her current squad, which is in the mix this season for another national title.
Maryland (18-2, 5-2 ACC) is off to a dazzling start, going 16-0 before losing its first game at Miami on Jan. 12.
Following a year that saw a young Maryland team finish 24-8 overall and 9-5 in ACC play, the Terps (No. 7 in the Coaches Poll, No. 8 AP) return a bulk of talent and have shown Frese early signs of maturity and unique cohesiveness.
“What I like about this team and what I think separates them is their chemistry. Just from top to bottom, they play for each other,” Frese said. “They’re hungry and unselfish—really coachable. You talk about this team and what they’ve been able to do up to this point, it shows the experience we have back, it shows that they’re growing up.
“The exciting thing about our team this year is that every player came back (from the offseason) better. This summer, they all stayed here in College Park and were committed to getting better.”
Maryland gets a heavy dosage of leadership from fifth-year senior point guard Anjale Barrett, who’s dishing out 5.6 assists a game and led the ACC in assist-to-turnover ratio last season. Joining her in the backcourt is sophomore Laurin Mincy (13.9 points a game, 4.2 rpg), who provided a 20-point, five-assist performance in Maryland’s win over Virginia on Jan. 16.
The Terrapins’ scoring monster is last season’s ACC Rookie of the Year, Alyssa Thomas, who goes by the nickname, the “Smiling Assassin.” The 6-foot-2 versatile forward, averaging 17.2 points and 7.7 rebounds a game, has grown into one of the best players in the country in her sophomore campaign. She scored 24 points against North Carolina and her reverse layup forced overtime before Maryland beat the Tar Heels 78-72 at Chapel Hill.
“The team drew up a play for me to get the ball and just take it to the basket. They had all the confidence in me, so I knew I had to make that shot,” Thomas said of her late-game heroics.
Versatility was the focus for Thomas in the offseason, Frese said.
“We challenged (Thomas) on her outside shot,” Frese said. “She’s shown some range this season and that’s made us better.”
Junior Tianna Hawkins is averaging a double-double (11.5 ppg, 10 rpg) for the Terrapins and she recently set a school record after she plucked 24 rebounds while adding a game-high 18 points in Maryland’s dominating win over Wake Forest on Jan. 19.
Maryland’s depth has been key this season with senior center Lynetta Kizer (11.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg), an All-ACC second teamer, and freshman guard Brene Moseley (8.1 ppg) providing a huge spark off the bench.
But it’s been the three sophomores—Thomas, Mincy and Alicia DeVaughn (7.2 ppg, 7.0 rpg)—who have taken the most strides. Last season, they were a highly-touted freshman class. This season, they’re grown-up sophomores.
“I think with that group, the biggest difference this year comes with experience,” Frese said. “They’ve been through the wars, they know what it’s like. To go out in the ACC, they know every game is a battle at this level.”
Perhaps the biggest indication to Frese that her team has grown up comes with the team’s resiliency. Maryland trailed Georgia Tech by 20 points but fought back to claim a 77-74 win on Jan. 6.
“What I love about the spirit of this team is that they’ll fight for each other, and they know they’re never out of a contest,” Frese said. “It’s very comforting, obviously, as a coaching staff when you see players who believe so much in each other.”
And then after losing its first game of the season in a road contest against Miami, the Terps bounced back with an ugly-but-pretty win over Virginia.
“You don’t ever want to lose, but you want to see how your team is going to respond,” Frese said.
“We just wanted to prove that we could bounce back after a loss,” Mincy said after the Virginia win.
Maryland will battle No. 5 Duke for the ACC regular season crown. The Terps lost to Duke recently in a Jan. 22 matchup but get another stab at the Blue Devils on Feb. 19.
This season, like in years’ past, Maryland has been one of the best rebounding teams in the country. The Terps have led the ACC in rebounding five of the last six seasons. Currently, they’re the third best rebounding team in the country, outrebounding opponents by over 16 a game.
With multiple second-chance opportunities, the Terps’ opponents get headaches.
“That’s the best offensive rebounding team I’ve ever seen,” Wake Forest Coach Mike Peterson said.
That’s where Maryland excels—on the glass. Frese said “taking care of the basketball” and limiting turnovers is an area her team will need to work on in order to improve on its second round exit in the NCAA tournament last year.
“I think losing against Georgetown (in the NCAA tournament second round) last year hurt, but it gave us perspective, made us work harder,” Frese said.
When it comes time for March Madness, Frese is confident the experience factor won’t be an issue.