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Maryland women’s basketball overcomes Niagara along with distractions

Kaila Charles scored 17 points for the 15th-ranked Terrapins. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Potential distractions loomed for the 15th-ranked Maryland women’s basketball team in facing Niagara on Thursday.

First, the game fell between Monday's physically and emotionally draining loss to No. 4 South Carolina, the reigning national champion, and Sunday's showdown against top-ranked Connecticut, winner of an NCAA-record 11 NCAA titles.

Then there was the unconventional tip-off time of 11 a.m. on field trip day with hundreds of excitable elementary school students raising the decibel level at Xfinity Center.

The Terrapins weathered all of that through a somewhat sluggish first half before using a third-quarter push to pull away for a 92-65 triumph over the Purple Eagles behind five players in double figures.

“I was disappointed with our effort,” Maryland Coach Brenda Frese said about the Terrapins’ first-half performance. “I thought we were nonchalant. We kind of played down to the level of the play, and that’s not who we want to be this season. We have to come out, and we have to compete for 40 minutes, and I think they were challenged at halftime to do that.”

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Forward Stephanie Jones led the way with a career-high 21 points and nine rebounds. The sophomore is the younger sister of Brionna Jones, one of the most accomplished players in program history who graduated this past spring and was a first-round pick in the WNBA draft.

Ieshia Small added a career-high 18 points on 5-for-7 shooting with six assists and four rebounds. The redshirt senior is among the handful of players Frese has been rotating at point guard.

The position remains in flux following the transfer of Destiny Slocum to Oregon State in the offseason. Slocum was the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association national freshman of the year.

Freshman Channise Lewis has been starting at point guard, although Frese continues to lean on Sarah Myers off the bench. Myers, Lewis and Small combined for 14 assists against the Purple Eagles while committing only four turnovers. Myers finished with no turnovers in front of an announced crowd of 9,425.

“It’s a work in progress,” Frese said of seeking stability at point guard. “I think it’ll be game to game, halftime to halftime until we kind of get the experience. I’m trying to remember between Sarah and Channise, these literally are first-game experiences for both of them playing these kind of minutes, so just growing with our team through the season and being patient.”

Sophomore guard Kaila Charles added 17 points on 7-for-12 shooting before fouling out in the fourth quarter with the outcome well in hand. The Washington Post All-Met Player of the Year as a senior at Riverdale Baptist was coming off a career-high 31 points against the Gamecocks, scoring 27 in the second half as Maryland trimmed a 26-point deficit to three in the closing minutes before falling, 94-86.

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Charles's three-point play Thursday triggered a 15-5 run to close the third quarter after Niagara had trimmed the deficit to 50-43 on a three-pointer from Maggie McIntyre. Small's jumper increased the lead to 55-43, and Maryland (2-1) soon scored four straight baskets, including consecutive layups from Jones, to open a 63-46 advantage.

“I think that halftime, Coach B, she challenged us as post players to be able to go out and defend and just play hard and play with energy like the rest of the team,” Jones said. “So I think that’s what we did. We came out with a lot more energy than we did in the first half.”

The Terrapins are not as long in the frontcourt as they have been in recent seasons but still managed a 19-1 margin in second-chance points and a 46-24 buffer in points in the paint. They forced 20 turnovers that led to 23 points and shot 57 percent for the game, including going 10 for 12 (83 percent) during the third quarter.

Victoria Rampado led Niagara (0-3) with 21 points, making 4 of 6 three-pointers. The Purple Eagles went 9 of 18 overall from beyond the arc.

“I know because it’s my senior year, I was just basically looking at it like taking advantage of the moment because I’m probably not going to have another game like that in my life,” Small said of the frenzied atmosphere. “It was exciting to see all the kids screaming. Sometimes we have to yell louder than we normally do because you can’t really hear. It was a great experience.”