- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 22, 2015

To win a national championship, Maryland coach Brenda Frese knew her team would face an opponent like Princeton, a scrappy mid-major in the midst of a dominant season. And Princeton coach Courtney Banghart knew her Tigers would run into an opponent like Maryland, a No. 1 seed with heaps of individual talent at every position on the floor.

For both coaches, the meeting is just happening too soon.

When the only undefeated team in Division I women’s basketball meets a perennial power ranked No. 4 in national polls, it’s usually in the championship game, the Final Four or, at the very least, the Elite Eight.

Instead, Monday night’s game between Princeton and Maryland will be played in the second round, in the Terrapins’ gym, with one team advancing and the other falling victim to the punishing draw.

“Do I think that the year warranted this [game] to be later on down the road? Of course,” Banghart said Sunday. “I think playing a one seed in the second round for a team that’s 31-0 is unfortunate for the game. … I would’ve liked to play them maybe in the Elite Eight, but we get them now. And we get them in their gym, which creates another challenge, [but] this team’s responded to challenges all year.”

Princeton has been in the national spotlight after finishing 30-0 in the regular season only to receive a No. 8 seed in the NCAA tournament. Despite beating Pittsburgh, Wake Forest, Georgetown and Michigan this season, Banghart believes the Tigers were judged on their poor tournament history and the shortcomings of the Ivy League in general. Princeton had never won an NCAA tournament game and all Ivy League teams were 1-22 in the event.

The Tigers’ seeding has created a uniquely difficult early game for both teams. Princeton will have to play a true road game against a Maryland program that has reached the Elite Eight in four of the past six seasons. The Terrapins, meanwhile, know that they are not facing a normal No. 8 seed. In a way, they’re even being overlooked.

President Barack Obama, whose niece plays for Princeton, was on hand for the Tigers’ tournament opener and left before the Terrapins played. National reporters are parachuting into College Park to write about Princeton’s historic run, not a Maryland team with legitimate Final Four aspirations.

“I wouldn’t say we’re the underdog, but that’s what it kind of feels like,” Maryland sophomore Lexie Brown said. “Their season’s been great, our season’s been great. I think everyone’s just excited to see an Ivy League team make some noise, and I’m proud of that. That’s great for the women’s game as a whole.”

In their first season in the Big Ten, the Terrapins went undefeated in conference play, claiming both the regular-season and tournament titles. Following the departure of dominant forward Alyssa Thomas, they have relied on a balanced attack featuring redshirt senior Laurin Mincy, who averages a team-high 13.5 points per game, sophomore guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough (13.3 ppg) and Brown (13.4 ppg).

When asked about playing an unbeaten team in the second round, Frese said the Terrapins will need to play well in every round of the NCAA tournament, regardless of opponent. She pointed out the inherent challenges of laying out a bracket while admitting that Princeton’s disappointment is fair.

“I think their reaction was justified when you talk about being undefeated,” Frese said. “We know what that’s like when you talk about going through the conference. You can have an off night and very easily take an ‘L.’ So I completely understand it when you talk about what it looks like in the season.”

Though the Tigers have the better record, Maryland navigated a more difficult regular-season schedule, facing numerous ranked opponents both in and out of conference play. Frese and her players said they feel “battle-tested” after their first season in the Big Ten, which points to the apparent disparity between the two conferences. For Princeton, that means Monday’s game presents an opportunity to put the Ivy League on the map.

“We’re here to prove that we can play,” junior forward Alex Wheatley said. “I mean, it’s a fierce competition within the Ivy League, but as soon as the regular season ends, we want to represent them well. And I think we can make some noise.”

Is it possible for the undefeated team to be an underdog? That might be the case Monday. Banghart said she’ll happily let the media create storylines while she and her staff continue to refine their game plan. Even so, she couldn’t ignore the facts: The Tigers are facing an uphill battle.

“I think if I was doing my bracketology, knowing them and knowing us and it was at Maryland, I think if you play that game 10 times, they’re going to win more than five,” Banghart said. “But as is said all the time, we don’t have to win five. We have to win one time. And if we’re sound with our game plan, we shoot the ball well, we extend them well, we understand how to defend them as a group, I like our chances. But we have to do a lot of things right.”

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