Some things seem inevitable.
Politicians aren’t going to answer any questions straight on. You’re never going to easily locate your car keys when you’re trying to get out the door. And it won’t rain if you’re carrying your umbrella with you.
Add to that list that the Maryland women’s basketball team is going to pile up a plethora of points, and as it inches closer to the Final Four, the comparisons with the 2006 Maryland national champs are going to come more frequently.
“The characteristics are similar — team chemistry, no drama, play for each other, you can see that,” head coach Brenda Frese said of the two Terrapin teams. “The ’06 team, all five starters averaged in double figures. This team has six players — Angel Reese was a starter for us — [and] that’s pretty exciting when you talk about the unselfishness.”
Those traits in the 2021 Terps will be on display March 28 when second-seeded Maryland (26-2) rides a 15-game winning streak into a meeting with sixth-seeded Texas in the Alamodome at 9 p.m., EST.
The Longhorns (20-9) upset third seed UCLA, 72-61, March 22 to advance to the Sweet 16 along with Maryland. Sophomore guard Celeste Taylor had 24 points, but defense was the story, with the ‘Horns holding the Bruins to 14 first half points. Texas has held its opponents to under 10 points in three of eight quarters in NCAA play so far, and 16 times total this season.
Texas is tall around the basket with 6-foot-5 Charli Collier and 6-foot-4 Lauren Ebo patrolling the paint and can cause July-in-Texas dry spells for opponent offenses. Rebounding could be a concern, and both the Terps and tall Texans love to force turnovers and get easy, quick baskets. Still, the Longhorns would prefer a slower pace and a lower score.
“They want to force you into a lot of pressure situations,” Frese said, “so you have to keep your poise and your composure.”
No one spends much time talking about the Maryland defense. The Terrapins’ 91.8 points per game leads the nation and is the highest average in program history. As Frese mentioned March 26 at an NCAA press conference, the Terps are the only team in the country with six players scoring in double figures.
The Terps are also kicking butt handling the ball (No. 1 in assist/turnover ratio at 1.7, No. 3 with 20.5 assists); shooting (No. 2 in 3-point percentage at .406, also No. 8 with a .790 free throw percentage), and, well, in kicking butt (No. 5 in scoring margin (+22.7).
Frese said her Terrapins were “playing beautiful basketball, rolling like an NBA team,” after the 100-64 beatdown of Alabama in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. And if there’s a major difference in the 2006 team and this one, besides a trophy resting in Xfinity Center, it’s that ball-handling.
“The difference in this team is their positive assist-to-turnover ratio,” Frese said. “They’re No. 1 in the country. That’s something the ’06 team didn’t have. They had a negative assist-to-turnover ratio.”
Maybe the most common thread, though, besides the joy both teams exhibit in playing the game, is Frese. Senior Chloe Bibby said as much March 26, too.
“I think Coach B is a competitor just like all of her players, whether it’s on the court or off the court and that’s just something that we’ve fully embodied this year,” Bibby said. “It’s good for us to see that no matter how hard we’re playing on the court, she’s coaching just as hard. She doesn’t take a play off, and I think that’s what makes her such a great coach.”
Bibby played for current Texas coach Vic Schaefer when he was the head man at her old school, Mississippi State. The Longhorns’ Texas-sized tandem around the basket doesn’t daunt Bibby, who is effective inside but does her best offensive work beyond the 3-point arc.
“We’re just going to play Maryland defense and Maryland offense,” she said. “That’s how we’re going into this game, with all the confidence that we’ve been playing with. When our defense is rolling, so is our offense.”
Another cause for optimism is the increased presence of the 6-foot-3 Reese on the floor instead of at the end of the bench in a walking boot. The Baltimore native had her best game in quite some time against the Tide. She had 19 points and five rebounds, hitting 8 of 12 shots.
“It was a lot of fun having my teammates have my back,” Reese said after the game. “They were feeding (the ball) to me on the inside, and I was just having fun doing what I have to do.”
Reese led the Terrapins in scoring with her top effort since 20 in the season-opener against Davidson. Three games later, she would break her foot and miss the next 14 contests while maintaining a high profile cheering her teammates on from the bench.
Now, the St. Frances product is getting her game back. She has averaged 14.0 points and 7.0 rebounds the last four contests, her game going more from just relentless energy and all that talent to a little more polish as she worked through the rust.
Her activity has been impressive all along, getting to the free throw line 51 times in the 10 games since her return, though she hadn’t shot the ball particularly well from the field (45 percent), almost always from in tight.
Her ability, though, is undeniable — getting long arms in the passing lanes, keeping the ball alive off the glass, beating everyone down the floor. Her contribution in those areas is taking the Terrapin defense, perhaps an unsung key to the team’s success, to another level at just the right time.
“I get hyped when I’m guarding a guard,” Reese said. “Coach always tells me, ‘Don’t reach,’ because I want to take the ball from them. But it feels good being a bigger guard and being able to guard all five positions, which makes us even more effective. Everybody on the team can guard one-through-five. Our defense has definitely tightened up and should be much more respected now.”
That warp-speed offense — an incredible testament to this Terrapins’ conditioning, stamina and determination — is the calling card, but improved defense is also a key component in the current run. The change to more switching in the man-to-man scheme in the era of positionless basketball (think Bibby and Mimi Collins bouncing out to shoot threes and Ashley Owusu and Diamond Miller going inside) is another true strength. That process was put in motion last year by Frese, anxious to take another Terrapin team to the tiptop of college basketball.
A perennial NCAA Tournament team, the Terps have been held to 65 or points or fewer in nine of their last 10 tournament-ouster games. Frese has refashioned them to better compete when a foe is able to slow the tempo and prevent the scoreboard from smoking. The hard-fought 62-50 win at Northwestern late in the regular season was a prime example.
That’s why Maryland is better equipped to advance beyond this round for the first time since back-to-back Final Four trips 2014 and 2015.
Of course, with the heavy losses to graduation and the transfers of stars Shakira Austin and Taylor Mikesell last spring, the whole plan could have been adversely affected. The talent, and maybe more importantly, the personality of the team Frese and her staff put together, wouldn’t let it happen.
“The chemistry on this team is off the charts,” Bibby said. “We get along so well on and off the court. I think that translates, and that’s why we’re able to have so much fun while we’re playing. You see that on the court. We don’t care who scores the ball. It’s all about the assists and the play. That’s what makes this team so special.”
Frese captured the essence of 2020-21 talking about Harvard transfer and national 3-point percentage (.506) leader Katie Benzan.
“The beautiful thing about Katie is that she just wants to do whatever she can to help this team win,” the coach said. “Just the attention she takes on the offensive end takes a defender out of the mix. She’s going to get in there defensively and make all those 50-50 plays to go get the ball. She’s going to scrap and fight, rebound for us, whatever we need her to do.”
Reese has adopted the same mentality as she has worked back in and is putting her best foot forward again.
“I feel more comfortable. I trust my coaches and teammates,” Reese said. “The game is just falling into my hands, so yeah, I feel really confident right now. I feel like I’m back and whatever it takes for us to win that’s my role each game.”
Frese would have smiled more broadly than usual had she heard that comment from a freshman who had a good chunk of her first season taken from her and her development slowed.
“They’ve just been a joy to coach in a really difficult situation,” Frese said of the squad. “I think this team has given a lot of our Maryland fans and supporters a lot of joy to be able to see this team and how far they’ve come.”
And no one around the program wants to see it end any time soon.
Photo Credit: 2021 NCAA Photos