'Everybody's rooting' for young, fearless Terps

TAMPA, Fla. -- Maryland is the only team that wasn't supposed to be here.

The other three -- UConn, South Carolina and Notre Dame -- were ranked Nos. 1, 2 and 3, respectively, in preseason polls.

The Terrapins were supposed to be too young; they had lost five seniors, including the program's leading scorer, Alyssa Thomas, from last year's Final Four squad, and conventional wisdom suggested it would be at least a year before fiery coach Brenda Frese could make her super sophomores -- Lexie Brown, Brionna Jones and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough -- believe themselves capable of returning.

Well, conventional wisdom is often flawed.

Sometimes losing your leading scorer (Thomas) doesn't make your offense worse, it makes it better.

Sometimes joining a new conference (from the ACC to Big Ten) isn't a move that depletes you, but rather conditions.

Sometimes being young and brash (and Maryland is) is better than being anything else.

And sometimes when you're preparing to play the best program in the country (that would be UConn), you don't downplay the moment, but rather make it clear that you know most people desperately want you to win.

"A lot of teams get caught up in their respect for UConn, but when you go into a game against them you have to be fearless and confident and we're going to go in there fearless," Maryland star guard Laurin Mincy said.

"Aren't we tired of it?" Frese said, referring to UConn's dominance, of both women's college basketball, as well as the media's attention. "I think everybody is rooting for us. Our sport needs it, to be honest. For us and for our sport, it would be a great thing."

On Sunday night (ESPN/WatchESPN, 8:30 ET) top-seeded Maryland will try to do that "great thing" -- a thing that many believe is impossible: defeat No. 1 UConn.

"I think everybody is rooting for us. Our sport needs it, to be honest." Maryland coach Brenda Frese, on UConn's dominance

But the truth is that this entire season has been unlikely for the Terrapins. They struggled the first month of the season, losing back-to-back games, a byproduct of having only one senior -- that would be Mincy -- on the roster. But then they didn't lose at all the rest of the way. That would be 28 consecutive wins.

How'd they do it?

In some ways, the seeds of confidence and boldness you see from Maryland today were planted during last year's NCAA tournament, when the Terrapins defeated favored Louisville, on the Cardinals' home court, in front of a sold-out crowd, to advance to the 2014 Final Four.

If they could do something like that, the younger players thought to themselves, maybe they could do pretty much anything?

That's exactly what Frese would have them believe. She has a way of turning doubt into confidence, struggles into strength. Three years ago, Frese's son Tyler was diagnosed with leukemia when he was just 2 years old. And then this past December, after three years of treatment, Frese and her husband, Mark, as well as Tyler's twin brother, Markus, celebrated a clean bill of health for Tyler. Those involved in the Maryland program said the diagnosis changed the coach: More than ever before, she wanted her teams to live in the moment.

And that's what they've done this season.

"Our motto from the second we lost Thomas was 'United We Can,'" Frese said. "It has been really cool to see how this team has evolved. I want them to walk into a room and be really confident, and that's something that women struggle with: self-esteem and self-confidence. I want to layer them every day from a confidence level."

Maryland played in the Big Ten for the first time this season, a schedule of opponents the Terrapins had mostly never played before. But night after night, they went into opposing arenas and came out with victories. The Terps won both the regular-season and tournament championships. And they did this without a traditional go-to player. Instead, they have a roster filled with players who have all had a go-to moment. "I think we're a really hard scout, only team down here that has no All-Americans," Frese said. "And I think that's what makes us so dangerous."

Another thing that makes them dangerous is that they're one of the few teams who won't swoon at the notion of playing UConn, which is going for its third consecutive NCAA title. When Frese arrived at Maryland, the best team in the ACC was Duke. At first, the Blue Devils ran over the Terrapins.

Four years later, in 2006, Maryland defeated Duke in the NCAA championship game.

Frese is brash and unapologetic. Ten days ago, after her team beat Princeton in the second round, she and her players posed with a cardboard cutout of President Obama, who had picked Princeton to win the game. (The president's niece plays for the Tigers.) Some people criticized Maryland, saying the Terps had been disrespectful, but they insist it was all in fun -- and just part of their team's personality.

And after every game this season, Frese has given out a handful of unorthodox awards: a bottle of Windex (best rebounder), a hard hat (grittiest), a sledgehammer (most clutch) and a necklace with lock (best defender). And then while in the locker room, the players pose with their swag for the team's social media accounts.

This team seems to have the other kind of swag, too -- the intangible kind. "The first thing I think of when people say that is Coach Frese," assistant coach Tina Langley said. "She gives this team the confidence that they are able to go out and play on any given night, anybody, whoever the opponent is. And you have to have a belief you can win."

But, you know, what about when you're playing UConn?

"When you step out on the floor, you have to know you're the best team on the floor, otherwise you can't compete," Frese said. "It's important for our players that we feel like we're the best team out there."

But, really -- UConn?

"It doesn't change."