BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — Because of injuries and inexperience, the Maryland women’s basketball team has relied heavily on all-American forward Alyssa Thomas for much of the season. But in Saturday afternoon’s NCAA tournament region semifinal, top-seeded Connecticut’s plan was to harass the two-time ACC player of the year, and the seven-time national champion followed that blueprint with nary a flaw, sending waves of defenders at her.
Thomas rarely found room to operate, and while Maryland stayed within reach early, its depleted bench and the Huskies’ depth conspired to end the Terrapins’ season, 76-50, in front of a sellout crowd of 8,594 at Webster Bank Arena.
“I said the other day Connecticut can make really good teams look really bad, and that was on full display today,” Maryland Coach Brenda Frese said. “Obviously we really struggled against their defense. They made it very difficult. They were quicker to loose balls. I thought they were aggressive with their rebounding, but just disappointed overall in how we played.”
Thomas finished with a team-high 13 points and nine rebounds, three assists and two steals but missed 12 of 16 shots. The junior forward had been averaging 29 points over her last four games, all in the postseason, and had not scored less than 26 points any of those times.
In the final college basketball game of her career, all-ACC senior forward Tianna Hawkins added 11 points and eight rebounds for the Terrapins (26-8), who lost to the Huskies for the second time this season.
Freshman guard Chloe Pavlech chipped in 11 points and was the only other Maryland player to reach double figures.
“Honestly I really wanted to win the game for Tianna,” said an emotional Pavlech, who scored 10 points in a 63-48 loss to the Huskies on Dec. 3 in Hartford, Conn. “I didn’t want this to be her last game.”
The Terrapins shot 31 percent, committed twice as many turnovers than Connecticut (16 to 8) and fell uncharacteristically short in rebounding, 41-36. Maryland came into the game with the second-best rebounding margin in the country (plus-14.3) and outrebounded Connecticut in the first meeting, 39-35.
This time, Maryland received zero points from its reserves, with freshman forward-center Malina Howard (20 minutes) and junior guard Sequoia Austin (two minutes) combining to shoot 0 for 7. The Huskies, meantime, got 25 bench points and had seven players log at least 16 minutes.
“We’ve beaten a lot of really good teams by a lot of points, so I know how good we can be,” said Huskies Coach Geno Auriemma, whose team advanced to Monday night’s Bridgeport Region final against second-seeded Kentucky, a 69-62 victor over No. 6 seed Delaware in the first semifinal.
Connecticut (32-4), which used runs of 13-3 and 10-0 in the first half to gain separation, had three players score in doubles figures, including Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Breanna Stewart with game highs of 17 points and three steals each. Reserve Moriah Jefferson added 10 points on 5-of-8 shooting with three assists and two steals, and center Stefanie Dolson chipped in nine points and a team-high 10 rebounds.
Maryland swayed momentum briefly going into the break when Hawkins aggressively blocked a layup attempt by Kelly Faris. Officials let the play stand, prompting Auriemma to leap out of his seat and vehemently voice his displeasure.
That tirade led to a technical foul, and Thomas made 1 of 2 free throws to trim the Terrapins’ deficit to 35-24. Moments later, Maryland whittled the deficit to single figures when Hawkins sank a jumper to complete the scoring during a first half in which the Terrapins were on the short end of virtually every significant statistic.
The Huskies then came out of intermission by scoring nine in a row to all but settle the outcome.
“Even to be down nine to Connecticut in my opinion is too big of a gap,” Frese said. “I thought we would come out of the locker room with a lot more energy, but I actually thought Connecticut, they came in with the knockout punch in the second half. We really struggled to score, and when we couldn’t score, then we had a lot of lapses defensively.”