The Maryland women's basketball team has turned a fair amount of its attention to the mental side of the game of late. Coach Brenda Frese is wary of wearing down her slim roster in practice. The hardest slog of every college basketball season — February — has arrived, and the Terrapins' focus these days has been, well, focus.
Maryland players took extra pains to stick to their pregame routines leading up to Thursday's game against Rutgers and start as strongly as they did in a blowout against then-No. 12 Ohio State on Jan. 22. Their effort paid off. The No. 11 Terps beat the Scarlet Knights handily Thursday night at Xfinity Center, 88-60, to win their fourth straight Big Ten game.
"My job is when I feel us kind of locking out of it to kind of tune us back in, but I thought we played hard tonight," Frese said. "When you talk about the job we did defensively on [Rutgers leading scorer Tyler Scaife] — she's really, really talented, and I think we made it look easy. But collectively, as a team, I just see our team continuing to keep improving each and every practice and each and every game, and we have to continue to be able to have that."
Maryland's strong conference play was recognized before it finished the rout Thursday night. The NCAA Division I women's basketball committee released the second of its regular season top 16 rankings during the game, placing Maryland at No. 13. In the first iteration of the rankings, which were released before the Ohio State win, the Terps were left off the list.
Maryland (19-3, 8-1 Big Ten ) never gave Rutgers (17-7, 5-5) a chance to establish its rhythm. The Terps stayed alert on defense and pounced first, shooting 59.3 percent from the field.
The win was Maryland's last home game for two weeks. Maryland plays three home games in February, two on weeknights and one on a Sunday afternoon — and Frese knows tests of her team's mental and physical fortitude await.
Carrying along momentum from wins such as Thursday's can't hurt.
The Terps executed with precision, surging to a quick lead in the first half behind 7-for-8 shooting at the beginning of the game as Rutgers' defense allowed Maryland to cherry-pick. The Terrapins led by 13 at the end of the first quarter and carried that sharp offense throughout the game.
They ended with 25 assists, with six apiece from point guard Channise Lewis and guard Eleanna Christinaki, on 32 field goals.
"That's who we need to be," Frese said, referencing the team's strong assist-to-turnover ratio in the first quarter. "I thought we got comfortable in the second quarter. We had seven turnovers in the second quarter that I was not pleased with because I think the first quarter is who we are."
On the defensive end, the Terrapins held steady against the undersized Scarlet Knights. Stephanie Jones (16 points, five rebounds) and Brianna Fraser (nine points, seven rebounds) did well to limit Rutgers in the paint and help keep them at 34.8 percent shooting from the field. Maryland won the rebound battle 46-26.
But it was Kaila Charles's performance as the primary defender on Scaife that stood out. Charles held the senior, who averages 20.3 points, to a season-low six. It was just the second game this season in which Scaife hasn't scored in double figures.
The sophomore, meanwhile, led the Terps with 22 points. Christinaki backed her up with 20 points and a team-high eight rebounds.
"My teammates had my back. It wasn't just me guarding her. It was a collective effort like we kind of did with [Ohio State's] Kelsey Mitchell, so it was a team effort," Charles said. "We had the help when we needed it. We were communicating, especially picked it up after the first half."
Rutgers had looked resurgent in Coach Vivian Stringer's 23rd year earlier this season and cracked the Associated Press poll at No. 21 in January for the first time since 2015. But the Scarlet Knights came to College Park having lost three straight, and they looked weary despite rotating in 13 players to Maryland's eight.
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