They didn’t win a national championship. But I’m not sleeping right now on a team clearly part of Long Beach State’s lineage: Brenda Frese’s latest edition of the Maryland Terrapins.
In this pandemic-marred season, in which four Maryland games were canceled because of coronavirus protocols, the Terps dropped at least 100 points on opponents only six times, including their most recent outing: a 104-84 win over Iowa to claim the Big Ten tournament championship. That earned them a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament; they are scheduled to tip off Monday in San Antonio against Mount St. Mary’s, out of Emmitsburg, Md.
But it isn’t their prodigious scoring alone — they average 91.3 points, the most in the country and more than any men’s team other than undefeated Gonzaga — that makes them better than the seed they were granted and could fuel them to next month’s Final Four. It is the supremely balanced way they are doing it, which might be why, despite being 24-2, they are not a No. 1 seed with Stanford, Connecticut, South Carolina and N.C. State.
(Full disclosure: I’m a University of Maryland employee.)
Five players scored in double digits against Iowa, which amounted to an off outing for the Terps. They have six players who average at least 10 points, from Ashley Owusu leading the team at 18.3 per game to freshman Angel Reese at 10.
As a result, Terps players don’t get the same recognition as those at Connecticut and South Carolina. The AP’s all-America committee named the Huskies’ superb freshman Paige Bueckers and the Gamecocks’ Aliyah Boston to its first team. It named N.C. State’s Elissa Cunane to its second team. Owusu was relegated to the third team with Stanford’s Kiana Williams.
Take away a couple of other scorers, such as Diamond Miller and her 17.2 points per game, and Owusu would probably be averaging more than 20 points, with even more accolades.
The next three weeks, of course, will tell just how good this Maryland team is. But consider the observations made recently about Maryland’s attack by analytics site FiveThirtyEight: “Maryland is the most efficient offense, per 100 possessions, in the nation, at 121.8 points scored. That ranks this team fifth since HerHoopStats began tracking the stat in 2015-16, behind a trio of UConn teams and last season’s Sabrina Ionescu-led Oregon Ducks.”
That, the site pointed out, puts Maryland in the company of three Connecticut Final Four teams (including a national champion) and an Oregon team that might have won last year’s title.
Maryland also leads the nation in three-point shooting percentage (41 percent), with graduate transfer Katie Benzan making 88 three-pointers on 51 percent shooting. And Benzan, not Owusu, became the team’s leader in minutes. (More disclosure: Benzan enrolled at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, where I teach. She became part of a sprouting lineage of women who played basketball elsewhere before studying in Merrill’s broadcast master’s program, including ESPN’s Monica McNutt from Georgetown, Fox Baltimore’s Lauren Moses from Virginia and CBS Sports’s Rachel McNair from George Mason.)
Most importantly in the long run, what Frese’s team has accomplished is by her design. Her philosophy. Her ideas about making the women’s game as much of an attraction as the men’s. And we were reminded in recent days that the women’s game is still treated by the NCAA as if it is merely an auxiliary, as if Title IX, the federal law mandating gender equity in educational institutions, didn’t exist.
“She’s very offensive-minded,” Iowa State women’s coach Bill Fennelly, who made Frese his first hire when he arrived in Ames in 1995, said Friday by phone. “She has a passion to let kids play the way people like to watch and to be entertained.
“When she was a player,” Fennelly added, “she always wanted to shoot it and not guard anyone.”
That may not be what Frese wants her charges to hear. They can defend. When their offense sputtered in February, scoring just 62 points against Northwestern, their defense held the Wildcats to 30.2 percent shooting and 50 points.
Casual fans may rave about such a result in a men’s game. But they might tune it out in a woman’s contest. Fennelly said Frese is aware of that.
“And very few people are dunking in a women’s game,” he said. “So let’s [have] an 80-, 90-point game.”
I didn’t know when I called Fennelly at his hotel in San Antonio, where he is preparing his No. 7-seeded Cyclones for a Monday matchup with Michigan State, how well he knew the Long Beach State teams I once loved.
“I was at Fresno State,” he said. “Penny Toler was kind of an Allen Iverson, a dynamic scorer. That’s what people like to watch.”
And I won’t have to stay up till midnight this time to see it. The Maryland women are scheduled to start entertaining at 4 p.m. Monday. If their show continues, they’ll be in prime time soon enough.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the Terrapins' Angel Reese.