The Maryland women's basketball team will host Delaware at Xfinity Center in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Credit: Kelyn Soong

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The word “adversity” came up repeatedly in conversations with Maryland women’s basketball players after Sunday’s NCAA Selection Show. During the 2021-22 season, the team dealt with injuries and illnesses that thinned its roster and hindered its progress. In late November, the Terrapins, then ranked No. 2 in the country, only had seven healthy players dress for their 86-67 loss to then seventh-ranked Stanford. But through it all, the Terps have continued to use one motto: “Complete the mission.” The message behind that is simple.

“Complete the mission is finishing with a national championship,” Terps guard Katie Benzan said Sunday night.

Their attempt at doing so begins this Friday at 5 p.m. against No. 13 seeded University of Delaware in the first round of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament. Maryland earned a No. 4 seed in the tournament after finishing the regular season 21-8 overall and 13-4 in the Big Ten. The Terps are in the Spokane region of the bracket along with No. 1 Stanford, No. 2 Texas, and No. 3 LSU. Maryland will host both the first and second rounds of the Spokane region at Xfinity Center.

The 2021 tournament was hosted in sites around San Antonio and concluded in the Alamodome due to restrictions related to the pandemic. Maryland Athletics announced earlier this month that it has lifted its indoor mask mandate, so fans attending first and second round games at Xfinity Center will not be required to wear masks or show proof of vaccination. Locally, American University and Howard University also qualified for this year’s NCAA tournament after winning their respective conference titles.

“I didn’t really have any expectations,” Terps head coach Brenda Frese said of where her team would be seeded. “I was just hoping that we would be hosting, to be quite honest. I mean, that’s a big piece to be one of the best 16 teams in the country that we’ve worked so hard through all the adversity of injuries and illness this year and for us to be able to be housing the tournament here for the first two rounds at Xfinity, I’m really, really thrilled.”

Last season, Maryland earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament after leading the nation in scoring offense and were the only team, women’s or men’s, to average more than 90 points per game. Frese has said she believes that team was the best in the nation but the Terps would end up being upset by No. 6 seeded Texas, 64-61, in the Sweet Sixteen.

This year, the team hasn’t been the same offensive force. Maryland is 10th in the nation in scoring offense with 78.1 points per game. Its top scorer is sophomore Angel Reese, with 17.5 points per game.

“Last year, in hindsight, felt more of a breeze … but this year, we had some tough losses. We’ve dealt with illness, we’ve dealt with injury, and last year, we didn’t have one COVID case, like we’re one of the teams that lucked out in that regard,” Benzan said. “So this year, regarding all those challenges, like, no matter what happened, we stuck together, and we’re fighting. That’s as much as we can hope, and so we’ll continue to fight in March.”

The team has also been bolstered by its strength of schedule. Maryland played one of the toughest schedules in the nation, and all eight of its losses came against teams ranked in the top 25, including a first round loss to then No. 14 Indiana in Big Ten tournament.

“Playing a tough schedule, we’ve seen everything,” Reese said. “Everything has hit us, different defenses have hit us, we hit adversity of course, playing with seven players sometimes, eight players, so I think we’re ready for anything. There’s nothing we haven’t seen.”

Players believe the team is peaking at the right time, and the thought of a potential rematch with Texas in the Elite Eight is just added motivation.

“There’s nowhere else you’d want to be right now,” guard/forward Chloe Bibby said. “We feel good about where we’re at offensively and defensively. So now we just gotta go to the floor and show the world.”