During her first season in the Big Ten, Maryland women’s basketball coach Brenda Frese grew accustomed to scouting new opponents. The conference schedule was littered with unknowns, a long list of teams the Terrapins had rarely faced or knew little about. Every matchup was fresh.
It’s a bit ironic, then, that in the third round of the NCAA tournament, Frese and her players will face a familiar foe. The top-seeded Terrapins drew a matchup with No. 4 seed Duke in the Sweet 16, coincidentally renewing a longtime rivalry from their days in the ACC.
When the two teams meet Saturday in Spokane, Washington, Frese said their familiarity with one another will be both a challenge and an advantage.
“I’m excited to have them on a neutral court,” Frese said with a wry smile. “But you know, I think it’ll be fun. We don’t really look at the name of the team or the seed of the team. None of that matters. It’s, for us, playing our best basketball. But obviously it’s a team we know really well, [and] they know us really well.”
Since Frese arrived at Maryland prior to the 2002-03 season, the Terrapins are 8-22 against Duke. The two programs jockeyed for ACC titles and NCAA tournament seeding for the better part of a decade before the Terrapins joined the Big Ten this year.
The roots of their rivalry run deep, and perhaps no player understands that better than redshirt senior Laurin Mincy, who led the Terrapins with 27 points Monday night as they ended No. 8 seed Princeton’s undefeated season with an 85-70 victory in College Park. She has faced the Blue Devils five times in her collegiate career, and missed two other meetings due to injury.
Yet when asked if facing Duke in the Sweet 16 would provide an extra level of motivation, she was hesitant.
“Somewhat,” Mincy said. “Obviously it’s going to be a little redemption there, but Duke, they’re just another opponent in our way. So we’re going to do anything in our power to get that win.”
Maryland hasn’t beaten Duke since 2012, when Mincy had 17 points and five rebounds in a 63-61 victory. This year, however, the Terrapins have had more success. They went undefeated both at home and in conference play, only dropping two games all season: a 70-64 loss to Washington State in late November, and a 92-72 defeat against No. 2 Notre Dame the following week.
Duke, meanwhile, enters the Sweet 16 at 23-10.
Though the Blue Devils will finish this season with double-digit losses for the first time since 2008, four of those defeats have come against the three other eventual No. 1 seeds: South Carolina, UConn and Notre Dame. Coach Joanne P. McCallie continues to have confidence in her players.
“I couldn’t be more rested and excited because of their energy,” McCallie told reporters after Sunday’s 64-56 win over Mississippi State. “They’re just a lot of fun to coach, and you just want to keep on coaching them. It’s a very, very special group. We love going west [for the next game]. There’s nothing wrong with going west, and we’re very excited.”
With the departure of dominant forward Alyssa Thomas, the Terrapins have had to rely upon a variety of players filling a variety of roles this season. Mincy and sophomore Lexie Brown, who scored 23 points, led the way Monday night, but in other games, it’s been sophomore guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, or center Brionna Jones.
“You have to fit the pieces,” Frese said. “This team, going into the season, there were so many question marks about what we were going to be in terms of our youth. But it was fun to be able to see it kind of unfold early in non-conference [play] and as we grew together as a team.”
Against the Blue Devils, Maryland will likely continue to rely on Mincy, the team’s lone senior, and allow others to step up when opportunities arise. In some ways, a win would serve as a form of validation against an old rival.
But after all the Terrapins have accomplished this season, they simply view Duke as the next challenge.