‘Adapt and adjust’
After tumultuous offseason, Brenda Frese’s remade Maryland women’s basketball team is back and better than before
Brenda Frese refuses to moralize about the barrage of transfers that have reshaped college basketball in recent years. Sure, the “portal” can swallow your team. It also can deliver a vital boost if you make it work for you. “Adapt and adjust,” the Maryland women’s coach likes to say. Nonetheless, April 5, 2022, was nuts. The day began with news that Maryland’s bulldozing lead guard, Ashley Owusu, would leave the program. It ended with Angel Reese, the Terps’ top scorer and rebounder and the highest ranked recruit of Frese’s 24-year coaching career, following Owusu out the door.
When part-time starter Mimi Collins joined them in the transfer portal the next day, Frese could hardly process what was left of a team that had just finished 23-9 and was headed for a top-10 ranking to start the 2022-23 season. She had spent years recruiting Reese and Owusu, making plans to shape teams around their skills. In a blink, they were no longer in her picture.
“It was pretty daunting,” Frese said recently. “It didn’t look promising; I’ll be honest. I liken it probably to my first year, when I walked in here to a rebuild.”
“You’re like, ‘What is going on?’ ” remembered senior All-American guard Diamond Miller, who had formed a high-scoring triumvirate with Reese and Owusu.
An all-consuming scramble ensued as Frese, her staff and the four Terps players who would return threw themselves into identifying and wooing the transfers who would help them remake the winning puzzle that is Maryland women’s basketball. The process would continue well past the point when a new team existed on paper, through get-to-know-you meals in the summer, a September retreat to cabins in the Shenandoah Valley and early blowout losses that
“I think it just really shows that when you have more chemistry off the court, it will translate onto the court.”
revealed Maryland’s lack of cohesion.
Did any of the women involved really think they would enter the 2023 NCAA Tournament with more wins and a higher seed than they had 12 months earlier, when they were led by Reese and Owusu? That’s where the Terps, 25-6 and a No. 2 seed, stand as they prepare to host Holy Cross in a firstround game Friday afternoon.
“I think it just really shows that when you have more chemistry off the court, it will translate onto the court,” said senior guard Faith Masonius, who had to rehabilitate a torn ACL at the same time she was helping nine new teammates (five transfers, four freshmen) acclimate to life in College Park.
Frese had lost star players to transfer before last April, and she had recruited from the portal to put the finishing touches on some of her best teams. But the wave of departures and arrivals that remade her roster in the span of two months was a sharp reminder of how much the sport has changed since she built her first great team at Maryland, almost 20 years ago.
“You were used to a system that didn’t feel broken, where the beauty of college was you got to watch the four years of a player’s development and watch them go through tough times and find their way,” Frese said. “But obviously, that has changed. It’s the biggest thing in life. When you see things have changed, you have to adapt to it.”
Players discuss the year-to-year changes matter-of-factly. They miss their friends but respect every individual’s right to pursue the best opportunity, and they no longer have any expectation that the same core will remain together for three or four years.
“You really never know who’s going to be here, who’s next,” Masonius said.
Building team chemistry is a different art in this age of constant change. Coaches do not have multiple years to build relationships with players, so they have to make sure their priorities are aligned before signing.
“When you’re recruiting portal kids, they know what they want,” Frese said. “You don’t have to recruit them for two or three years. It’s like speed dating for three weeks. You may or may not know a portal kid as well as you get to know a high school kid.”
Coaches asked the returning players to share their impressions of potential recruits so the mix would not be off.
“We had to trust our coaching staff, that they would find people who fit our program, find good people,” Masonius said. “It felt nice to be a part of who they would be bringing here. They really listened to what we had to say.”
Vanderbilt transfer Brinae Alexander recognized the “stigma” attached to Maryland after Owusu and Reese entered the portal but chose to look at the flip side.
“I knew we were all going to be new, so I just looked at it as a really great opportunity for everybody to grow into this culture,”
“They have no idea what the team’s going to look like in the coming year or who’s going to step up,” Princeton transfer Abby Meyers recalled thinking. “So there was just excitement to prove myself.”
To have any chance at blending this jumble of players into a team that could reach Maryland’s lofty standards (10 Sweet 16 appearances, six Elite Eights, three Final Fours since Frese arrived in 2002), Frese knew she would need to increase chemistry-building activities “a hundredfold.”
“We were the adults, and even we knew it was a jolt,” she said. “So, [we held] a lot of meetings, talking about how we were going to be OK, a lot of one-on-ones, checking in on players.”
Masonius and sophomore guard Shyanne Sellers were the connectors in chief.
Sellers made sure she was present whenever a new teammate moved in. Masonius — the “mom of the team,” in Alexander’s words — made a point of asking transfers and freshmen to tag along for meals or shopping trips.
“I know it’s hard moving into a new place
and a new team where you don’t know anybody,” Sellers said. “I didn’t really have to be asked. It was something I wanted to do.”
Shortly after the fall semester began, the team traveled to the Shenandoah Valley for a long weekend of tight-quarters bonding. They swapped stories about where they’d come from, the people who’d meant the most to them.
“We definitely showed who we were as people,” Masonius said. “We got in a vulnerable spot so we could increase that trust.”
It helped that the transfers were mature players who had experienced plenty at their previous schools.
“All of us are older kids,” said Alexander, one of three newcomers who ended up among Maryland’s top five scorers. “Everyone holds themselves to a high standard.”
That did not mean the Terps instantly found the same page once practice started. They liked each other as people but did not know one another as players. Many of them had been stars in other locales. Which parts of their games would they have to sacrifice to make this new machine hum?
“None of us knew how each other really played,” said Miller, who was also coming back from knee surgery. “Like, I had heard of Abby, but I had never watched Princeton play, so there was definitely a thing of, ‘Does she know what she’s doing?’ I’m not saying she doesn’t, but when you’re a new team, it’s like, ‘Does she actually know?’ ”
What was Frese’s early impression? “That we were going to be a work in progress. The ball would get stuck. We wouldn’t
— Senior guard Faith Masonius
move a lot,” she said. “There wasn’t a lot of trust.”
Knee injuries to Towson transfer Allie Kubek and sophomore forward Emma Chardon robbed them of interior scoring and rebounding.
“I told everyone, ‘Look, we’re not going to be playing our best basketball until at least January,’ ” Masonius recalled.
A 25-point loss to No. 1 South Carolina in their second game of the year was not a shock. An upset loss to DePaul and a 23-point home thrashing at the hands of Nebraska were harder to take because the Terps did not fight hard enough.
Nonetheless, Frese sensed burgeoning tenacity and resourcefulness. If practice was scheduled for 8 a.m., players showed up at 7 a.m., ready to work. When they weren’t winning one way, they found another mode. Yes, they suffered ugly defeats, but they also won at Baylor and Notre Dame and beat mighty UConn in College Park. All were ranked in the top 17.
“We had made that nonconference schedule for kids who weren’t there anymore,” Frese said. “But these kids took it like champs. They wanted to play in games like that, in places where you’re really not supposed to win.”
Meyers felt the Terps meshed during their December win over UConn. Alexander pointed to a late-January showdown with Michigan. For Sellers, it was their blowout home win over Ohio State.
“I believe we can make it to the Final Four,” she remembered thinking that February evening.
Regardless of the specific date, they agree the team reached a point of synthesis, with no one creating extraneous drama and everyone committed to extending the ride as long as possible.
“We have so many different personalities and types of people that if someone lacks something in one area, another person thrives in that area,” Masonius said. “We have a really good balance.”
The Terps hope that adaptability will be a winning formula over the next 2 ½ weeks. For all the victories Frese has amassed, Maryland has not made it past the Sweet 16 since 2015. If the Terps reach the Elite Eight, a rematch with South Carolina, the best team in the country, could await.
Players and coaches are not ready to put a bow on their accomplishments but acknowledge that no matter what happens in the tournament, they have come a long way from the chaos of last spring and summer.
“It’s very satisfying; I know a lot of people were worried about us,” Sellers said with a laugh that seemed to rebuke those who had written Maryland off.
“A hundred percent,” Frese said when asked if the team’s run has been one of the proudest in her career. “I pinch myself, because it was a really tough offseason, personally and professionally. But this one, this is what keeps you in coaching.”
Next month, she’ll start to reassemble the puzzle all over again.