COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- For a time March 19, everything big was working against No. 2 seed Maryland in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament First Round matchup with Iona.
Maryland’s own big expectations, the big layoff since their last game, and just the fact the Terrapins are so dang big. No. 15 Iona seemed take advantage of it all to make life miserable for the home team before Maryland fnally prevailed 74-58 to advance to Monday’s second round meeting with Washington, also in Xfinity Center.
“I kind of expected it, coming in and knowing all the teams aren’t as (physically) big as us, especially in the first couple of rounds,” said junior center Brionna Jones. “I think having to battle (in this game) can definitely help us later on.”
Jones chased smaller Gael players, battled foul trouble and still came up, well, big with 11 points and 11 rebounds in just 22 minutes. She was on the floor in the fourth period, grabbing five of those boards as Maryland (31-3) staved off an Iona rally that had shaved a 19-point second half lead down to seven.
“We looked like we hadn’t played a game in two weeks,” said coach Brenda Frese of the Terrapins’ layoff since the March 6 Big Ten Championship game. “We talked about it at halftime with the 11 turnovers. We gave up about 30 points between turnovers and second chance points. There was rust on our offense – we weren’t reversing the ball, giving ourselves just one option. I expect we’ll be able to clean that up.”
The Terrapins cleaned some of it up down the stretch, particularly on defense, holding Iona to just 3-of-15 shooting in the final 10 minutes and no field goals over the final 6:50.
“It was good for us, we want to be challenged,” said Brene Moseley, who also got into foul trouble but finished with 15 points, hitting seven of her 10 shots. “We want the best, whatever someone is going to throw at us. We were prepared but we have to get back to pace of the game and things like that.”
After a slow start, the Terrapins set the pace, running out to a 16-point halftime lead, extending it to 46-27 on two Shatori Walker-Kimbrough free throws early in the second half and then seemingly trying to hang on as the Gaels (23-12) got a second wind.
“We have to make sure when we come out to play that we keep our foot on the gas and continue to keep the pressure on the defense and not let up,” said Walker-Kimbrough, who led the way with 19 points, including a clutch 10-for-10 effort at the free throw line.
Maryland was 15-of-19 (78.9 percent) at the line, and though they shot 58.3 percent (28-of-48) from the field, Iona’s trapping, switching defenses forced 19 turnovers and kept the 6-4 Jones and the 6-4 Malina Howard under wraps much of the day. Howard did hit two big fourth quarter field goals, and she was 5-of-8 from the field for 10 points, her first double-figure scoring effort in 20 games.
“I think Coach B does a great job of putting us in situations throughout the year to get us ready for tournament time,” said Howard who also had to chase smaller players defensively. “You never know what kind of team you’re going to play against this time of year. I think just being versatile, being about to guard a guard or post is important.”
Iona opened the fourth quarter with the first five points, including a 3-pointer from Philecia Gilmore, one of seven she hit (in 15 attempts) on her way to 21 points. Her three at 8:51 cut Maryland’s lead to 60-53, and it seemed maybe March Madness was on in Maryland’s Xfinity Center.
But senior Brene Moseley drilled a jumper at 8:19, and the Terrapins would finish on a 14-5 run. Gutty Gaels point guard Marina Lirarazu hit a three to cut it to 64-56 with 6:54 to play but that would be Iona’s final field goal. After scorching the nets from distance much of the afternoon, the Gaels missed their final seven 3-point attempts to finish 10-of-30 (33.3 percent).
Howard scored off a give-and-go with Walker-Kimbrough, then hit a baseline jumper when Walker-Kimbrough found her out of a double-team. Moseley hit a jumper to make the lead 14 again, and Iona would never get closer than 12 the rest of the way.
“We did a better job not forcing the ball into the post and letting the game come to us in the second half,” said Walker-Kimbrough of Maryland’s spotty offense.
Maryland was 7-of-11 in the fourth quarter, owned the boards 12-5 and had only four turnovers the final 10 minutes, a couple in scramble situations as the game got crazy. The Terrapins also had the five players in double figures, including senior Tierney Pfirman off the bench with 11 points and five rebounds.
The disjointed game, Iona playing outside-in, produced some unusual numbers like nine rebounds from 5-9 guard Kristen Confroy, the second most of her career. Confroy was stellar on defense, had just three points but also had three assists in a team-high 38 minutes.
Freshman forward Brianna Fraser played five minutes, all in the first half, and had four points and two rebounds. She was pressed into early action thanks to Jones’ foul trouble.
“I think we’re going to improve on taking care of the ball, that’s a big thing,” said Howard of moving forward toMonday. “Maybe some improvement on our rebounding and playing really hard every single possession for 40 complete minutes.”
Well, the Terrapins lead the nation in rebounding and the 42-25 final in that capacity won’t hurt their standing in the category. Iona did generate 15 points off turnovers and 12 more second chance efforts, more a credit to the Gaels spreading the floor and really getting after it all afternoon against the heavily favored Terrapins.
Maryland led 42-27 at the half, shooting 64 percent (16 of 25) from the field and dominating the glass 20-11. The flies in the ointment were 11 turnovers and the MAAC champions hitting 5-of-11 3-point attempts to hang around.
In fact, Iona was up 6-2, Gilmore hitting her first two long-range attempts. But the Terrapins slapped a full-court press on after Pfirman hit a baseline jumper and Confroy’s steal turned into Jones’ layup to tie it at 6-6 at 8:16, and Maryland would reel off a 14-2 spree to lead 16-8 at 4:54 on Walker-Kimbrough’s 3-pointer.
The Gaels surged back – two more threes as they hit four of their first five – and made it 16-14 before Fraser, getting some extended minutes, scored inside to start an 8-0 run, Moseley scoring in transition to make it 24-14 at 1:56.
Maryland led 26-16 at the end of the first quarter and stretched that lead to 38-23 when Jones got a stickback at 3:59. Iona got four straight points from Treyanna Clay, but Walker-Kimbrough took over the final minute, hitting four straight free throws to end the half.
“I thought it was great that we had to earn that game,” said Frese. “It was a great 40-minute game and credit Iona. They came in and played a really complete 40-minute game. They defended hard. They shot the ball really well. They were really scrappy and aggressive.”
Frese said Maryland’s experience came into play. The bench, particularly two of those seniors – Moseley and Pfirman – provided a real spark, outscoring the Gaels’ subs 30-18. Moseley and Pfirman had 26 of those points.
“We had to dust the rust off after that two-week lay-off,” said Pfirman. “They were a good team and they made the hustle plays. We had to stay with our game-plan and doing what we do. Practice isn’t like games so we had to get the mindset back.”
Mission accomplished. Maryland won its 10th straight game since a Feb. 8 loss at Ohio State. The Terrapins have also now won nine straight NCAA games in Xfinity Center and are 30-10 all-time in the tournament under Frese.
They’ll host 23-10 and No. 7 see Washington, a 65-53 winner over Penn, March 21.