BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — In 11 seasons as head coach at Maryland, Brenda Frese has one national championship, four appearances in the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight and five trips to the round of 16, including one this weekend in the home state of its next opponent.
Yet the fourth-seeded Terrapins arrived here as a prohibitive underdog seeking validation that their program belongs in the conversation with the likes of top-seeded Connecticut, which has seven NCAA titles and is nearly without peer when it comes to success over the last two decades.
Still, Maryland (26-7) enters Saturday afternoon’s game at Webster Bank Arena hardly in awe of the Huskies after pushing them earlier this season, when the teams played at XL Center in Hartford on Dec. 3. In that 63-48 loss, the Terrapins paid special attention to defense, and that strategy kept them within striking distance until midway through second half.
It’s a blueprint the coaching staff has been reiterating to the players, and in part it’s a reason why schools such as Notre Dame, Baylor and St. John’s have managed to beat one of the deepest and most fundamentally sound teams in the country over the last several seasons.
“I think, similar to last time, we’ve got to lock in on defense, and that will lead to our offense,” Maryland junior forward Alyssa Thomas said. “Last time I think we did a really good job defending them, so we’ve just got to keep that up.”
In the previous meeting, the first between the programs, Maryland limited Connecticut to 38 percent shooting. That was the Huskies’ second-lowest percentage this season, and it helped the Terrapins whittle the margin to seven with 12 minutes 59 seconds left in regulation before Connecticut scored eight in a row to gain a comfortable buffer.
The Terrapins also forced 17 turnovers, three more than Connecticut commits on average. In three losses to Notre Dame and one to Baylor this season, the Huskies (31-4) were on the wrong end in turnovers, including a season-high 35 in a triple-overtime, 96-87 loss to Notre Dame on March 4.
No other team in the country has been able to frustrate the sport’s pre-eminent program like the Fighting Irish, who are 6-1 over the past two seasons against their chief Big East rival. In each of those wins, Notre Dame forced more turnovers than it committed.
That statistic is all the more telling given the Fighting Irish shot a lower percentage than Connecticut in five of those six victories.
“That’s obviously a huge part, to be able to take possessions away,” Terrapins Coach Brenda Frese said, “where they’re not able to score the basketball as freely and as easily as they would like to.”
The Terrapins, meantime, had issues scoring in the last meeting. Maryland’s point total that evening was its lowest of the season, and it came one game after starting guard Laurin Mincy was lost for the season with a torn ACL.
Also without sophomore point guard Brene Moseley, who tore her ACL in October, Maryland at that time was only beginning to assemble a regular rotation in which Thomas has been asked to handle the ball much more than in her first two seasons. In adjusting to her new duties, the two-time ACC player of the year missed 10 of 12 shots and finished with six points in 36 minutes.
So another priority, according to players, is making shots early, although accomplishing that even may not be enough. The Terrapins shot 42 percent in the first half the last time they played Connecticut and limited the Huskies to 33 percent but still trailed at halftime, 33-20.
“The first thing we always talked about, and I think it gets overlooked with [Connecticut] a lot, is you have to be able to score,” said George Washington Coach Jonathan Tsipis, who was the top assistant at Notre Dame for nine seasons before taking over in Foggy Bottom this past season. “You’re just not going to play a game with them in the fifties. It’s not going to happen, and obviously you can key on certain things defensively, but I think the first thing we always talked about is how are we going to be able to score.”