COLLEGE PARK, Md. – The Terrapins’ afternoon practice ended with a celebration, Maryland working on last-second, buzzer-beating shots.
The 32-2 Terps are hoping the celebration continues this weekend at the Bridgeport Regional in the 2017 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament. The Terrapins have already had reason to celebrate on the court with two NCAA Tournament wins at home last weekend to advance to the Sweet Sixteen for the fifth time in the last six seasons.
Off the court, though, things have been a little more trying. Despite the Big Ten Conference championship, 30 regular season wins and a star-studded team that has upperclassmen who have already been to two Final Fours, Maryland garnered just a No. 3 seed in the Bridgeport Region, as in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where No. 1 seed, four-time defending national champion and winners of 109 consecutive games UConn should be waiting if the Terrapins advance toregional final.
Maryland faces 10th seeded Oregon (22-13) at, in 7,881-seat Webster Bank Arena, in the first regional semifinal, followed by UConn against UCLA.
In a topic that came up repeatedly afterpractice before a large local media contingent, turns out the Huskies also hogged up most of the tickets this weekend, too, Maryland getting only its allotment of 100, with the Huskies grabbing up all the seats in the building long before the Terps (and the other Bridgeport semifinalists) knew they were going.
“It’s disappointing that so many of our loyal fans won’t be able to go,” said senior Brionna Jones. “It’s a little more motivation for us, though, if we can make it through and get to the Final Four.”
Jones, who is always smiling and always putting up double-doubles, said it was still business as usual for the team. “I think we’ve played confidently all season and I think that’s going to continue through the rest of the tournament,” she said. “We have to focus on the little things – hustling after the loose balls, knowing the tendencies on the scout (report) and fine-tuning those things.”
Maryland fully expected to find long-time rival Duke in the bracket, but a young, upstart Oregon team knocked the No. 2 Blue Devils off, perhaps helping to refocus Maryland, which if the Terrapins can win , face the most daunting task in team sports today – facing the Huskies in a home court environment in the NCAA Tournament.
That’s not exactly how the Terrapins are looking at it, though.
“It’s not like we haven’t been in these situations before,” said Maryland senior Shatori Walker-Kimbrough. “We’re going to take this, create our own energy and just run with it. Coach (Brenda Frese) has been saying all season that the number in front of your name doesn’t matter. You look at Quinnipiac (12th seed that has upset Marquette and Miami) and Oregon. It doesn’t matter. At this point in the season every team is good. That’s why we take one game at a time.”
Jones and Walker-Kimbrough are an awesome one-two punch, Jones averaging 20.0 points, leading the Big Ten with 10.8 rebounds and pacing the nation with her 69.8 percent shooting from the field. The explosive “SWK” chips in 18.9 points per game, shot 53.3 percent from the field and was fifth in the nation, hitting 45.9 percent of her 3-point attempts.
Jones had 22 points and 11 rebounds in an 83-56 Second Round win over West Virginiain Xfinity Center. Maryland had a 103-61 First Round win over Bucknell. Now averaging 90.1 points per game, this is the highest-scoring team in Maryland history and currently leads the nation in scoring average. They’re No. 2 in the country in both field goal percentage (51.2 percent), and rebounding margin (+14.3).
Walker-Kimbrough thinks they’re peaking at the right time, though the six-day break between games this week is both good and bad. “We’re so anxious to play,” she said. “We take so much responsibility in our scouts. We want to be the most prepared team going into each game, so we’re using this week wisely.”
Asked about not playing Duke next, Frese echoed the same sentiment as the players – preparation and focus is now on Oregon. “Oregon is a really good team. I think at this point, any team that is in the Sweet Sixteen is going to be a really good team. They had to go win on Duke’s home court. They have a young team – they start three freshmen, they have a lot of international players so they’re not afraid of the moment. Just a physical aggressive team, and every position can score. They’re not going to make mistakes on their own, so you have to be able to come in and take that game.”
Maryland freshman point guard Destiny Slocum, who was heavily recruited by the Ducks, before migrating to Maryland, knows them very well. “I went on unofficial visits there so I know the coaching staff and a lot of their players are from the West Coast and I played against them,” Slocum said. “I know their faces and some of their tendencies, really good 3-point shooting team. They have one of the best 3-point shooters in the country (5-9 junior Lexi Bando), and (freshman point guard) Sabrina (Ionescu) is fearless.”
Of course, Slocum is fearless, too, and somewhat mystical after canning a 70-foot, two-hand set shot at the halftime horn. Slocum’s 6.1 assists per game were second in the Big Ten, and she averaged 11.6 ppg, in earning the league’s Freshman of the Year Award.
Slocum has steadily improved all season and could be even better this time around if she gets another shot at Connecticut (34-0), which downed the Terps 87-81 in late December in College Park. Slocum had 23 points in that game in a nationally-televised coming out party.
“Right now we’ve played two really solid games and hopefully we can carry it into a third,” said Slocum. “I think we’re getting there to playing our best basketball.”
Frese, who will be coaching in her eighth Sweet Sixteen, has her team taking aim at the Ducks, before thinking about anything else. “You don’t get the chance to play UConn if (we) don’t win and they have to take care of their game with UCLA. This team has never looked ahead to any opponent so I don’t anticipate that would happen. They know from watching film on Oregon how good they are and what it’s going to take to advance.”
In their first Sweet Sixteen ever, the Ducks have one of the tallest rosters in the country with six players 6-3 or taller. While Maryland brought in the country’s top-rated recruiting class, headlined by Slocum and Kaila Charles, who joined her on the All-Big Ten Freshman Team, the Ducks have some talented youngsters, too.
In addition to Ionescu at the point, freshmen Ruthy Hebard, a 6-4 forward averaging 14.9 points and 8.7 rebounds, and 6-5 freshman Mallory McGwire, who averages 7.5 points and shoots 54 percent from the field, also start. The 5-10 Ionescu chips in 14.4 points, 6.6 points and 5.6 assists, and promises to be a great matchup with Slocum. They know each other from summer AAU play, Slocum from Meridian, Idaho, and Ionescu from Walnut Creek, Calif.
“Their freshmen are fearless,” said Walker-Kimbrough. “They’re hungry. We have to match their intensity and stay true to our identity.”
“They play hard, they hang around a lot of great teams and the Pac-12 is a great conference,” said Maryland junior sharpshooter Kristen Confroy. “We want to use our experience and lock in for 40 minutes.”
Before the NCAA Tournament, though, the Ducks had lost four of their previous six games. They beat No. 7 seed Temple 71-70, before the Ducks downed Duke 74-65 to reach the Sweet Sixteen.
Walker-Kimbrough mentioned that last year’s team “got a little bit ahead” looking beyond a Second Round game with Washington, which upset the Terps and then went all the way to the Final Four. “We’re taking that experience and we learned from it,” she said.
“Honestly, I think you live and you learn,” said Confroy. “Last year we learned very hard that if you start looking ahead you’re going to forget about the present moment. It might sound cliché’ to say you’re taking it one game at a time, but we truly mean that because we learned the hard way last year.”
Maryland is 10-2 all-time in the round of 16, and 6-1 there under Frese. Jones and Walker-Kimbrough are one win from tying the school record for winningest class. They are one victory shy of Marissa Coleman’s and Kristi Toliver’s (2006-09) mark of 126 wins.
Perhaps – at least this weekend – every bit as valuable are the eight seats Jones and her sister and teammate Stephanie have for their family in Bridgeport.
So, any thoughts of selling those tickets?
“No, I think everyone wants to see these games,” laughed Jones.