NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Brenda Frese and her Maryland Terrapins feel like uninvited guests at the Final Four.
And that’s fine with the Terrapins coach.
Back in the national semifinals for the first time since winning the championship in 2006, Maryland will try to spoil an unprecedented title game when the Terrapins face undefeated Notre Dame on Sunday night. Stanford plays unbeaten UConn in the other semifinal.
“Maryland and Stanford are the extras at the Miss USA pageant,” Frese quipped. “Our job is to be able to crash the party.”
While fourth-seeded Maryland (28-6) surprised many by reaching the Final Four, Notre Dame has been on a roll all season. The Irish are two wins away from the first undefeated season in school history and a second national championship. Coach Muffet McGraw said her team tries to focus on the next game and not making history, which has helped them remain perfect this season.
“It’s been easy,” McGraw said of keeping her team focused. “The easiest thing that we’ve had to do this year. Take it one game at a time. the seniors have done a great job, making sure nobody is looking ahead. We’ve been here before and we know we have a lot of work to do.
“You can’t get to a national championship till you win the first game.”
The Irish (36-0) are still dealing with the loss of senior leader Natalie Achonwa, who suffered a torn ACL in the regional final victory over Baylor on Monday night. Achonwa said the team dealt with her injury well and is concentrating on the upcoming game.
“I think that we’re just focusing on playing Maryland. We’re focusing on what are we going to do offensively and defensively right now it happened,” she said. “I tore my ACL. It happened and I think we’re looking beyond that, and what we’re going to do to win tomorrow.”
Achonwa was on the sidelines during the team’s open practice leaning on her crutches. She was shouting encouraging words to her teammates and talking to freshman Taya Reimer, who will replace her in the starting lineup.
“Only advice I can give her is be Taya Reimer,” Achonwa said. “She doesn’t have to be me. At the end of the day, she came to Notre Dame for a reason. Coach McGraw recruited her because she’s a great basketball player and a great person. She just needs to go out and do that.”
Even without their senior leader, the Irish have an experience advantage over the Terrapins having advanced to the Final Four the last four years. They are still looking for their first title since 2001.
“And I think for us, you know, it’s more of a business trip,” McGraw said. “And we’re enjoying it and I think we’ve enjoyed all the moments that we’ve had this year, but I think there’s so many distractions today especially with the open practice, autograph signings and all those things, that you need to make sure you’re focused on the task at hand.”
The two teams met back in January with the Irish coming away with an 87-83 victory. Notre Dame had a 22-point lead in that game before the Terrapins rallied to take the lead in the second half before falling.
Both sides feel that the game becoming tight could benefit them.
“It really does,” McGraw said. “Watching film, you get to see them at their best. That’s what you need. Going into a game like this, you want to see what they do well. Alyssa Thomas was unstoppable. She was phenomenal in the second half. She rebounded, she scored, she did everything she wanted to do.”
Thomas remembered how her team got off to a rough beginning.
“We did not come out to a good start,” the senior All-American said. “ Once we settled down, we were able to get back into the game.”
Thomas was thrilled to finally make the Final Four.
“I think the biggest thing is to experience this for my teammates,” she said. “I’ve been saying it for the longest time. I just want them to be here with me. I’m really excited that, finally get to be on the playing side of the Final Four.”