NASHVILLE — All the songs drifting out of the smoky juke joints were about achin’ and cryin,’ a Music City moan that suited the Maryland Terrapins because they frankly got a whippin’. Their 87-61 loss to unbeaten Notre Dame in Sunday’s Final Four was a lesson in just how far they are from fulfilling any dynastic pretensions.
The Fighting Irish reached their third NCAA championship game in four years, and when the Terrapins examine the differences between the two teams, they will look at every single section of the box score. For starters, there’s this glaring stat line: The Terps had only 21 rebounds, the fewest ever collected by a team in the Final Four. Notre Dame had 50, their plus-29 margin the largest in Final Four history.
“They just wanted it more, beat us at our game,” Alyssa Thomas said, correctly: The Irish were sharper on offense, stronger on defense, smarter in matchups and rotations. Even their scrubs executed.
The Terps were, of course, unexpected guests in a Final Four that also features Connecticut and Notre Dame, two undefeated teams. But that didn’t mean they had to be devoured like pregame snacks. As Stanford Coach Tara VanDerveer, whose team fell to U-Conn. in Sunday’s other semifinal, put it, “If we’re going to be someone’s hors d’oeuvres, we’re not going to be swallowed easily.”
Brenda Frese had characterized it slightly differently. “To some extent, I feel like Maryland and Stanford are the extras at the Miss USA Pageant,” Frese said.
But the atmosphere the Terps ran into was hardly pageant-like — more like honky-tonk. Hard liquor and country music ran through the streets around Bridgestone Arena. Along Broadway and Commerce streets the whine and whang of steel-string guitars floated through doorways. The alley entrance to the legendary Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge was already open at 10 on Sunday morning. The Throwdown Liquid Nightclub was still closed, which no doubt bespoke its purity. Tourists posed with a life-size plastic Elvis or stared in the window of Ernest Tubb Record Shop or read the plaque at the front of Ryman Auditorium, “the Mother Church of country music.” Amid all of the brunching fans in team regalia, a bellowing drunk in a Confederate flag wandered around at the top of the Nashville Bluffs overlooking the Cumberland River, shouting “I’m for the CSA!”
Frese tried to sustain the pageant notion by donning scarlet red sequins under her severe black suit. McGraw obliged with green patent-leather pumps and a pencil skirt. The Irish wore golden lamé sheaths on the backs of their sneakers. But then the ball went up and the wardrobes became, shall we say, disheveled.
The last time the two teams had met in January, the Terrapins fought back from a 22-point first-half deficit before losing by just 87-83, and that was with three freshmen on the roster still figuring things out. “We were really green,” Frese said. “We were really raw.” The hope was that her team had grown in the interim. Also, the Fighting Irish were a player down after losing senior forward Natalie Achonwa to a snapped anterior cruciate ligament in the Elite Eight. The thinking was that this would be a close physical game. “I’m expecting a lot of fight and heart, so we have to be ready to punch them back when they throw punches,” Laurin Mincy said.
But it wasn’t so much a matter of one punch as a series of small cuts. Trying to score on the Irish was like trying to climb through a barbed-wire fence — one that moved. Meanwhile, the Terps had no answer for the Irish’s swiftly dissecting offense. The combination of ball movement and sharp screens made the Terps wave with futility, unable to find the ball.
“They just played harder than us,” guard Lexie Brown said.
McGraw shuttled players in and out and ordered up shifts as efficiently as a choreographer. Five minutes into the second half the Irish led 57-37. The Terps just couldn’t track Irish senior all-American Kayla McBride, who went off for 28 points, while Thomas, their own staunch all-American, was held to 14 by a collapsing scheme that shut off all openings.
“Every time she got by a line of help, there was another,” Frese said. “There were waves of people.”
As the game wore on Frese stood, arms folded, mouth a thin down-turned line. As the final seconds ticked away she put an arm around each underclassman who came off the floor and whispered long messages that seemed to consist of, “Remember this feeling.”
“We’re disappointed, obviously, in terms of our lack of response,” she said afterward.
But what Frese preferred to dwell on was the potential for growth. The Terrapins lose Thomas among their five departing seniors. But they return some spectacularly promising talent, who now know firsthand what an undefeated team plays, looks and acts like. There was Brown’s 11 points and eight assists and general coolness under pressure; Brionna Jones’s presence in the post, with 16 points on 7-for-10 shooting; and Mincy’s 11 points and four steals.
“You become different,” Frese said. “There are lot of great things for us to look forward to.”
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.
Feinstein: Florida got fancy and paid for it
Jenkins: Notre Dame isn’t an underdog
Video: Final Four by the numbers