Maryland junior guard Diamond Miller smiles during a press conference after the Terps beat Delaware in the first round of the 2022 NCAA tournament. Credit: Kelyn Soong

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Cinderella stories rely on timing.

In March, midnight strikes eventually for every team but one. The Maryland women’s basketball team knows this all too well. The Terps have danced all the way to a title before, but they’ve also heard the clocktower toll early. After the pandemic cost Maryland an opportunity in 2020 and they fell in the Sweet 16 a year ago, this year’s Terrapins have had to fight through myriad injuries and setbacks, but find themselves still dancing, and may just have found the best versions of themselves when it matters most.

On Friday, the Terps played the kind of opening round game at Xfinity Center in College Park that you hope for as a host team—a dominant, wire-to-wire statement win. They absorbed a 31-point game from No. 13 seed Delaware’s Jasmine Dickey with ease by shooting 50 percent from deep and getting double-digit scoring from all five starters. They were able to ride the home crowd and breathe easy down the stretch, winning 102-71 and cruising into Sunday’s second-round matchup with 12th seeded Florida Gulf Coast rested and ready.

Perhaps, in a perfect world, Maryland would rather have passed a theoretically tougher test against No. 5 Virginia Tech before traveling 2,500 miles away from the comforts of Xfinity Center. But if the team needed any reminder that nothing is a given, even at home, fellow Big Ten power Iowa gave it to them, getting bounced by No. 10 Creighton just minutes before tip in College Park.

If the Terps were expecting as smooth a ride as they enjoyed Friday, they were quickly dispelled of that illusion. FGCU used its speed to slash to the basket for easy scores and hit enough high volume distance shooting to stay with Maryland for much of the first half, actually outscoring the bigger and taller Terps in the paint early, before Maryland eventually prevailed, 89-65.

It was 36-34 Maryland when Mimi Collins picked up two fouls on the same play—one on the floor, then an intentional one for tossing her opponent aside with a forearm—which led to a five-point possession and a three-point lead for FGCU. To that point, FGCU had made Maryland play their game and seemed every bit the Terps’ equal. But that sequence seemed to light the spark that Maryland needed, as the Terps suddenly dialed up their defense and toughness on a 19-0 run that bridged halftime and effectively put the game away.

“You know, Mimi was pretty emotional,” said Maryland head coach Brenda Frese. “They settled her down, and once Mimi went to the bench, they just kind of picked up for her. That’s the chemistry we have in this locker room. That’s why this team has been able to fight all year through all the adversity because you can see how close they are, but it definitely triggered a response by the girls to want to fight harder.”

In the years since Maryland’s national title in 2006, making the Sweet 16 has become something of an expectation. The Terps have made the NCAA tournament field every year but one and have won at least two games eight times in 14 tournaments. But this year’s team has matched the most conference losses (four) and overall losses (eight) as any of Frese’s squads in the last decade. To extend this run any further, the Terps will need to win in unfamiliar environments, starting with top-seeded Stanford on Friday in Spokane, Washington.

Maryland (23-8) is now 15-1 in College Park this year, but just 7-4 away from home and 1-3 at neutral sites. One of those losses was to Stanford in the Bahamas in late November—when Maryland was ranked No. 2, Stanford No. 7—a game in which the Terps trailed by 22 at the half and never came close in an 86-68 setback, which matched their largest margin of defeat all season.

That game was a world away in many senses, though. Missing were both junior guard Diamond Miller and her 12.7 points, four rebounds, and three assists per game, along with graduate senior sharpshooter Katie Benzan, who has shot 51 percent (35 of 69) from deep since Jan. 20. Those two combined for 40 points in just 53 combined minutes against Delaware and Miller was one of three Terps to score 20 or more against FGCU, notching a game-high 24 to go along with nine rebounds.

“This is the first time, I think this season, that we’re all 100 percent healthy,” said Miller. “So just to have that back is amazing, and I think we’re thriving right in the right moments.”

Maryland had broken 80 points just twice in its previous eight games and hadn’t cracked 90 since dropping 106 points on Penn State on Jan. 6. They averaged 95.5 points and a 27.5-point margin of victory this weekend in College Park.

Stanford, meanwhile, hasn’t lost since before Christmas, when the Cardinals lost, 65-61, on the road against No. 1 South Carolina. After a somewhat slow start and just a two-point lead at the half, the top-seeded Stanford dispatched No. 8 seed Texas 91-65 Sunday night to set up a rematch in Spokane on Friday.

Based on the seeding, nothing more is expected of this year’s Maryland squad. The Terps will be the underdogs in every remaining game they play. And while the chorus of every team after every tournament win is that they’re not done yet, with Maryland having reached this same step last year, and with the way they’re playing right now, it sure seems like they believe it.

“We’ve been through so much this season, and we’re just coming together at the right time,” said sophomore forward Angel Reese, who added 21 points and nine rebounds against FGCU. “I think that we’re not happy right now [just] because we’re going to the Sweet 16, where we were last year.”