If you wanted a scenario that would force local college basketball fans to pay attention to the Maryland women, you could do worse than this one: an up-tempo offense that produces more points than every Division I basketball team not featuring Lonzo Ball. An insulting seeding from the women’s selection committee, supplying an extra dab of motivation. A near-certain Sweet 16 matchup with Duke, still the team Maryland fans of all stripes most like to beat. A potential regional final against Connecticut, riding a three-billion game winning streak.
And oh yeah, a men’s tournament that has exactly zero local teams remaining, unless you count West Virginia. Which you don’t. Because it’s in West Virginia.
Which is all to say that the Terps women could have a moment over the next week. They’re still playing thanks to a 83-56 walloping of West Virginia at Xfinity Center on Sunday afternoon, a game featuring a 70-foot halftime buzzer beater, a mid-game geyser of offense and all the fourth-quarter ovations you wanted.
That win gave the Terps an average margin of victory in this tournament of 34.5 points, which is almost a final score for some men’s teams. It gave them their fifth Sweet 16 appearance in six years. It gave them a virtually unbelievable 97 wins over three seasons.
But forget all those numbers. You already knew that Brenda Frese runs the region’s most powerful college basketball machine. It takes more than that to seize the casual fan’s interest.
It takes irresistible story lines, like a rematch against forever-rival Duke, which faces Oregon in a round-of-32 game Monday. Root for the ACC team and a chance to see a Duke-Maryland throwback game that should stir the emotions of anyone old enough to remember Kristi Toliver and Juan Dixon.
“As a Terp, always; Duke’s always going to be a thing,” former Maryland center Malina Howard said.
“It’s tradition,” current center Brionna Jones said.
“You’ll always have that rivalry,” Frese said. “I mean, that’s an easy one for your kids and your program to get up for.”
To make it even more delectable, former star Lexie Brown transferred to that Durham school after helping Maryland reach consecutive Final Fours and now leads the Blue Devils in scoring. A former Terp, leading Duke? She might as well have publicly insulted the Calvert family coat of arms.
Then there’s Maryland’s style of play. The Terrapins will tell you their focus is on rebounding and defense because that’s what Frese tells them, but they also give scorekeepers a cardio workout. Two Division I teams averaged more than 90 points a game this season: Ball’s UCLA men, and the Maryland women. During the middle 20 minutes Sunday afternoon, when freshman point guard Destiny Slocum left West Virginia defenders spinning in circles and Jones performed the Mikan Drill under the basket, the Terps put up a modest 51 points. That’s right: 51 points in 20 minutes.
Yes yes yes, defense and rebounding, but “offense definitely attracts fans,” as Shatori Walker-Kimbrough put it with a grin. “Offense is the moneymaker.”
And for offense, this team has a three-headed attack. Underneath, there’s Jones, who has led the nation in field goal percentage two years in a row. (She made 69.6 percent of her shots this season; only UNC Wilmington’s Devontae Cacok had a better shooting percentage in the men’s game.) On Sunday she seemed out of sorts early and still wound up making 10 of 13, while notching her 24th double-double of the season. With six points next week, she will have the school’s single-season scoring record.
“She’s just a beast,” guard Kristen Confroy said. “That’s the best way I can describe her.”
There’s Walker-Kimbrough, one of the five best three-point shooters in the women’s game. She started Sunday’s scoring with a deep bomb, then shook her head as she ran back up the court, as if giving the Mountaineers an idea of their chances. In her five postseason games this season, Walker-Kimbrough has made 59 percent of her three-pointers.
“An incredible shooter. It’s unheard of,” Confroy said. “She’s the best shooter I’ve ever played with.”
Finally there’s Slocum, the freshman sensation, who runs the whole operation. She had half of Maryland’s 16 assists Sunday, zipping around and behind defenders, mixing step-back three-pointers with underhanded dishes. It has been years since the Terps had such an irrepressible distributor, at once calming and perpetually on the verge of a highlight.
“A ball of energy,” Kaila Charles called her. “It’s just exciting to watch her play,” Jones said. “How do you define a free spirit?” Confroy asked.
Slocum probably had the five most memorable plays on Sunday, including her two-handed overhead heave from 70 feet away that ended the first half with a bang. One West Virginia player called it “one in a jillion.” It was a shot that left everyone in the arena stunned. Well, almost everyone.
— Maryland WBB (@umdwbb) March 19, 2017
“When she shot it, I thought it was going in, 100 percent,” Charles said. “I didn’t even think anything of it.”
“She makes so many of those crazy shots that we’ve come to expect it,” Confroy agreed. “And as she shot that one, I was like ok, that one’s a little crazy. … [But] it’s just Destiny. We expect it now.”
So you’ve got the rivalry, the offensive firepower, the individual stars, the viral 70-foot heaves. What else do you need? How about the best slogan I have heard from a college basketball team this season. Before every game, the Terps huddle up and shout out a slogan given to them by an assistant coach, one that pays homage to Muhammad Ali but with a delightfully modern twist:
“Birds fly, grass grows,” the players shout, “and We. Bust. That …” Well, you know. Family newspaper and all.
Anyhow, after screaming out their rallying cry, they disband their huddle in laughter. If they felt tight Sunday, it was hard to see underneath the smiles. And by the time a first-quarter deficit turned into a 14-point halftime lead, it all started to become clear: The last local team standing, the one that loves to score — the one with three legit stars and a committee-inspired chip on its shoulder — doesn’t get a chance to grab the casual fan every season. But with potential must-see games against Duke and then Connecticut on the horizon? This is one of those chances.
“It’s a terrific opportunity any time you can expand your brand and get people hooked,” Frese said.
A win or two next weekend, and those hooks will be hopping.