Coach Brenda Frese and Maryland exit the floor after their 77-63 loss to Oregon in the Sweet 16 on Saturday. The Terrapins were hoping for an Elite Eight rematch with top-ranked Connecticut, but the No. 10 seed Ducks had other ideas. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
Columnist

It ended with Destiny Slocum dribbling out the clock, dribbling out an era. Maryland’s freshman point guard felt helpless. She felt angry. In the final 10 seconds of a game that had been decided, Slocum could do little besides say farewell to a 32-3 season, to a much-desired Elite Eight matchup with Connecticut and to two special seniors who craved a more glorious exit.

In those 10 metaphoric seconds, stewardship of the Maryland women’s basketball program transferred from Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Brionna Jones to Slocum and the rest of a precocious roster. The moment couldn’t have been more bittersweet. For as promising as Maryland’s future remains, its present concluded too soon Saturday at Webster Bank Arena. The third-seeded Terrapins succumbed to a young and carefree underdog, 10th-seeded Oregon, in a 77-63 loss in the NCAA tournament round of 16.

“The thing that really sucks that was going through my head at that last minute is that we sent them out this way,” Slocum said of the seniors. “And you know, it sucks when you have two amazing people and two amazing players, and you know they deserve so much more. And, I mean, we clawed, and we fought for them, and I wish we could have done more. And that was the thing that was going through my head at those last seconds.”

Maryland lost the chance to have a grander transition. This team was deep, and it had an impressive blend of experience and gifted youth, with two all-time senior greats leading a group that included the sport’s No. 1 freshman recruiting class. It looked like a Final Four setup. The Terrapins stayed in the top six in the polls all season, and entering the tournament, they had lost only a close home game to Connecticut and a shootout at Ohio State.

But when the bracket gods cursed them with a No. 3 seed in Connecticut’s region, the thought of a Final Four or title-game rematch against the Huskies turned into an Elite Eight scenario. But for the second straight year, Maryland left the tournament earlier than expected, falling to another lower-seeded, underappreciated Pacific-12 team with double-digit losses.

A year ago, seventh-seeded Washington upset Maryland in College Park. This time, the Ducks eliminated the Terrapins in the Sweet 16, controlling the game from the middle of the second quarter until the end, forcing Maryland to play at an uncomfortably slow pace and taking advantage of their size, length and shooting.

It was almost the perfect game plan against Maryland. The Terps have struggled defending some great shooters; Oregon made 6 of 15 three-pointers, with three apiece from guards Lexi Bando and Sabrina Ionescu. The Terps dominate opponents on the boards, averaging 14 more rebounds per game; Oregon was outrebounded by just one. And Maryland’s pressure defense barely fazed Ionescu, the freshman guard who plays like a senior. She finished with 21 points, seven assists and six rebounds.

In addition, the Ducks had the size to bother Jones inside, and their defense executed a strategy to chase the Terrapins off the three-point line and make them take contested shots. Maryland missed all six of its shots beyond the arc.

“I’ll tell you this: Oregon is for real,” Maryland Coach Brenda Frese said. “I thought they were sensational. I thought they punched first. I thought they were fearless, aggressive, confident, really punished us in terms of any mistakes, any breakdowns that we would have.”

Frese was adamant about not letting the loss diminish the careers of Jones and Walker-Kimbrough. They went to two Final Fours, swept the Big Ten regular season and tournament championships three times and won 125 games. It’s a legacy that can’t be erased, and it’s a standard that Slocum and her super class will be hard-pressed to match, let alone exceed.

Still, for all the joy and great memories, Maryland left a few tournament victories on the table the past two years. And while you can feel free to lament easy shots that Maryland rushed and silly turnovers that it committed (21 on Saturday) and an overall inability to execute when forced to play a more methodical style, the macro issue is something the Terrapins can’t control. It’s the improving parity in women’s basketball.

On Saturday, playing on the undercard of what felt like the Connecticut Invitational, it seemed like an odd place to witness an example of the sport’s parity. But on the same day that Connecticut beat UCLA to win its 110th straight game, Oregon Coach Kelly Graves led his team, his 13-loss Ducks, past a perennial top-five Maryland squad that may have had the best chance to beat the Huskies this season.

The story now shifts to Graves, whose wild and thrilling career as an NCAA tournament upset king continues. Through him, you can track how much more balanced women’s basketball has become — with the exception of Connecticut’s dominance. In his career, Graves has an 11-8 tournament record despite being a double-digit seed in seven of his nine appearances. He has led teams to four Sweet 16 berths. This is his second Elite Eight appearance, both with double-digit seeds. In 2011, he led Gonzaga to a regional final as a No. 11 seed.

“I always say a good team with nothing to lose is a dangerous team,” Graves said.

Oregon finished 4-27 just four years ago under former coach Paul Westhead. Now it’s living off its own well-regarded freshman class and putting the ball in the hands of Ionescu, a top-five national recruit. She was the best player on the court Saturday.

Dormant big-conference programs are awakening. Mid-majors are rising, too. Last year, Washington and Syracuse advanced to their first Final Fours. This year, Oregon and No. 12 Quinnipiac made it to the Sweet 16.

The game is evolving. As consistent as Maryland has been, its dominance is not as dominant as it was even three years ago. It needs the Big Ten to be better overall, to present more challenges in conference season. In the meantime, it might need to increase the strength of its nonconference schedule from good to extremely challenging.

Those Final Fours that Maryland seemed entitled to make are becoming less of a guarantee. And the game still has ample room for growth.

“It’s not all the way there, but in terms of the depth, it’s starting to get there,” Frese said of the parity in the women’s game.

Now, as two all-time players depart and the sport keeps evolving, Slocum has the ball. She will remember the empty feeling of dribbling out a loss.

The much-hyped future of Maryland women’s basketball is here, but as the Terrapins and other dominant programs have been forced to learn, there are no sure things. Well, except for Connecticut.

For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.