The eighth-ranked Maryland women’s basketball team immediately circled Friday night’s game against Connecticut when the schedule came out, eager for another go at the eight-time national champions who beat the Terrapins twice last season.
This time could be different, Maryland players figured, given their depth advantage, five days to prepare and an exuberant crowd behind them at Comcast Center. But the window for redemption closed emphatically in the second half, when the top-ranked Huskies pulled away in their first visit to College Park for a 72-55 win in front of 15,327.
Two-time ACC player of the year Alyssa Thomas led Maryland (2-1) with 20 points on 9-for-18 shooting, a game-high 14 rebounds and three assists, and senior guard Katie Rutan added 11 points, making 3 of 5 from three-point range. No other player had more than seven points for the Terrapins, who managed just 17 points in the second half and finished at considerable deficits in points in the paint (48-10), points off turnovers (17-4), and fast-break points (16-0).
“Obviously disappointed. A missed opportunity for us,” said Terrapins Coach Brenda Frese, who earlier in the day signed a contract extension that will keep her in College Park through at least 2021. “But they’re the defending national champions for a reason.”
At the top of that list is sophomore forward Breanna Stewart. Last season’s most outstanding player in the Final Four scored a game-high 26 points on 9-for-16 shooting with seven rebounds (all in the second half), two assists, two blocks and two steals without a turnover.
Stewart was one of three Huskies who scored in double-figures. Guard Moriah Jefferson had 15 points, making 7 of 11 shots, to go along with four assists, three steals and no turnovers, and guard Bria Hartley added 10 points, despite going 0 for 11 from three-point range.
Connecticut thrived despite missing two injured players, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Morgan Tuck. Mosqueda-Lewis is out indefinitely with an elbow contusion, and Tuck had surgery on her knee that’s expected to keep her out for four to six weeks.
Connecticut (3-0) committed just six turnovers, shot 56 percent in the first half when the proceedings were still in doubt and blocked nine shots, with Dolson collecting a game-high five. It also limited Maryland to 8-for-26 shooting in the second half.
“That second half defensively, that was as good as I’ve seen us play,” Huskies Coach Geno Auriemma said.
After Maryland tied the game at 43 immediately following intermission, Connecticut sucked the momentum out of the arena with eight consecutive points. During the surge, Huskies center Stephanie Dolson was assessed her fourth personal foul with 16 minutes 11 seconds left in regulation, but it hardly mattered.
Even with the all-American on the bench, Connecticut continued to apply pressure. After Thomas sank a jumper to stem the tide momentarily, Stewart converted a pair of free throws, and Brianna Banks’s three-pointer from the left side produced a 56-45 buffer with 13:39 to play.
The Huskies then expanded the lead to 16 with a 9-2 burst. Jefferson had two baskets during that stretch, including a three-pointer that put Connecticut ahead, 65-49, with 11:01 to go.
“They’re a great team, and it’s a game of runs, and we went on ours,” Rutan said. “They happened to go on theirs right after, which gave them a little bit bigger of a lead than we would have hoped.”
Thomas opened the first half draining three straight mid-range jumpers, underscoring an offseason of dedication to improving that facet of her game. But Stewart matched that efficient start, and the early portion of the first half became a back-and-forth between her and Stewart.
The Terrapins sank three three-pointers among their first six field goals to take a two-point lead when Connecticut embarked on the first run of the game with eight consecutive points. Stewart scored the first two baskets, and Hartley closed with a pair of field goals for a 23-17 margin.
But Thomas, who had 19 points combined against Connecticut last season, closed the gap with two jumpers in a row. Maryland went back ahead in the ensuing minutes, 36-35, following a 7-2 burst capped by Laurin Mincy’s layup. The Terrapins’ last lead of the first half was 38-37, when Connecticut closed with six points in a row, including two foul shots with seventh-tenths of a second to play.
“I thought we played really well for about the first 24, 25 minutes of the game,” Frese said. “And then U-Conn. does what they do. They make runs at you. They don’t make mistakes.”
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