INDIANAPOLIS — The Maryland women’s basketball team’s opening game Friday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse had Coach Brenda Frese noting the double-edged nature of her Terrapins’ double-bye in the Big Ten tournament. It was nice to start the postseason well rested, Frese said, but the four-day break before Friday’s game meant Maryland was lethargic on offense.
In Saturday’s semifinal, the second-seeded Terps found their stride early in a 66-53 win over third-seeded Nebraska that resembled more of a glide than a grind.
“You saw that from the tip, that we just had a lot more confidence, a lot more energy, pep to our step,” Frese said. “Having shoot-around in the arena, all those factors, I think, were important for us to be able to get the start that we did.”
Maryland (25-6) brought balanced scoring, smooth offense and characteristically stout defense to its first meeting against the Cornhuskers (21-10) in the Big Ten tournament. The Terps improved to 9-0 in their history against Nebraska, including wins in all three games this season.
Maryland also improved its all-time Big Ten tournament record to 11-0.
That mark will be threatened in Sunday’s final, where No. 1 seed Ohio State awaits. The Buckeyes (26-6) beat Minnesota, 90-88, in the other semifinal Saturday behind a combined 56 points from Kelsey Mitchell (30) and Stephanie Mavunga (26).
Before this season, the Buckeyes were the only team to have defeated the Terrapins in their first three seasons in the Big Ten; Maryland got its revenge with an unexpectedly resounding 99-69 home win Jan. 22. It was one of their strongest games in league play.
The Terps will need the type of crisp play they brought Saturday. Maryland was in more of a normal routine Saturday — the Terrapins were able to conduct shoot-around at Bankers Life Fieldhouse whereas Friday they traveled to nearby Butler — and the team said it made a difference. The Terps shot 44.2 percent from the field and, though their three-point shooting lacked for the second game in a row, they dominated all other facets of the game.
Maryland beat Nebraska on Sunday by just two points in its regular season finale. On Saturday, the Terps wanted to be more aggressive.
“We’ve had plenty of close games against Nebraska,” redshirt senior Ieshia Small said with a chuckle. “We wanted to make sure we put our foot on their throats and didn’t let up.”
Junior forward Brianna Fraser led the way as her strong defense in the post translated on the offensive end. Fraser had 18 points on 6-for-7 shooting from the field and wasn’t the only one with an efficient offensive performance.
Small, who was voted the league’s sixth player of the year earlier this week, added 13 points off the bench on 6-for-8 shooting. Eleanna Christinaki added 14 points and led the team with 16 rebounds, and Kaila Charles, the team’s leading scorer this season, added 14 points.
It was Small who opened up a double-digit lead for Maryland with a free throw with four minutes remaining in the second quarter; the Terps took a 10-point lead into halftime and had control from then on. Nebraska trimmed the lead to single digits for just a moment in the third quarter.
“Our bench was huge tonight,” Frese said. “All season long, we’ve leaned on so many different players each and every game. First half it was Ieshia being able to work the hot hand — what Eleanna and Bri were able to do just consistently throughout the entire game. We continue to see when we play like this and we play together and we work extremely hard, good things pay off for us.”
Janay Morton was the only Cornhusker in double digits with 15 points. Nebraska shot 31.4 percent from the field and gave up 13 points off 12 turnovers.
The Terps had Small to thank for their quick start. The guard was electric in the first half, making 6 of 7 shots for all 13 of her points and making it clear she was feeling good about her shot. After her third bucket of the half she jogged back downcourt and shook her hand as if trying to cool it off. After the fifth, the Miami native simply held up her arms and shrugged.
Small and the Terps could afford to look a little cocky. On Sunday, they will try to become the first team to win four consecutive Big Ten tournament championships, and the players feel that they have a legacy to protect.
“I’m just looking forward to the moment, just being able — not a lot of teams get to go to the Big Ten championship,” Small said. “. . . I’m just soaking it all in. I know this is my last Big Ten tournament, and I’m just happy we’re able to get this far and play the best that we can, and the outcome will come. I’m just excited for the moment and to be playing against a really talented team.”
“I’m just excited to keep the legacy going,” Fraser added. “They’ve been — Maryland has been winning the championship for a while now. I just want to keep that going.”