Right around the Round of 32 and Sweet 16, when the talent gaps start to shrink and everyone’s habits have been settled into, is when you can begin to foresee a team’s downfall. The lack of outside shooting for Baylor; the slow starts for NC State; South Carolina’s rushing on offense. This is the sort of scouting work it helps to put in early for the satisfaction of one day saying, “See, I knew it all along.”
Before this weekend, I couldn’t see what would go wrong for Maryland. Sure, they’ve had their share of heartbreaking tournament exits in the last four years, but this No. 2 team felt as legitimate a contender as any one-seed. They handled Iowa, another great shooting team, with no problem in the Big Ten Tournament championship game earlier this month, and in the second round of the NCAA tournament, Maryland pummeled—absolutely pummeled—Alabama in what was the Terps’ seventh 100-point game of the season. By a few measures, they were the tournament’s most terrifying team and one of its deepest. Among the six players averaging double digits this season were Harvard grad transfer Katie Benzan, a 50-50-90 shooter; graceful wing Diamond Miller; and Ashley Owusu, a powerful, smart-passing 6-foot point guard whose game makes—I mean this as a compliment—absolutely no sense. If they were not winning it all this year, it would certainly not be because of Sweet 16 opponent No. 6 Texas, a maddening team headlined by a maddening player: the projected No. 1 WNBA draft pick Charli Collier, who too often goes underused by the Texas offense.
Maryland got out to an early 13-2 lead on Sunday night, and the game felt basically over. Right on cue, ESPN showed a little graphic that said Maryland scored more points per 100 possessions than literally the Brooklyn Nets, a team assembled with no other philosophy than to score as many points per 100 possessions as possible. Because what happens next is funnier for it, let me just share with you some more phrases used (rightfully!) in sports media to describe this year’s Maryland team: “on another level,” “supremely balanced,” “best offense in the country,” “evoking memories of 2006 national champions,” “has a real chance to go to the Final Four and maybe win it all,” “the most potent offense in women’s college basketball,” “no weaknesses,” “ruthless and relentless.”
They ruthed and relented. The Longhorns answered the 13–2 run with a 10–0 run of their own, and from there, Maryland seemed thrown off by the unfamiliar predicament of not being up 30. “There was people out there saying they were gonna hang a hundred on us, and I think we took that personally,” Texas guard Celeste Taylor said after the game. Texas, coached by Vic Schaefer, played a physical, punishing brand of basketball, slowing Maryland down with a stifling transition defense in the second half. The best offense in the country was completely unrecognizable: The Terps shot 22.7 percent from three after averaging 40 percent on the season. They’d averaged over 90 points per game in a strong Big Ten conference, and Texas beat them 64–61 last night, a season-low for Maryland. Collier shined with 16 points and 11 rebounds, and the Texas defense merits lots of praise, but Maryland’s wholesale lack of luck was stunning. Nothing was going the Terps’ way. With 20 seconds left in the game, Benzan had a good three-point look to tie it, in an area you could call Prime Katie Benzan Zone no less, and she missed a shot that’s usually automatic for her. Maryland got owned. There is no other way to put it.
“For a lot of our players, this was the first time on this kind of stage, not having the NCAA tournament last year,” Maryland coach Brenda Frese said afterward. That’s fair, Owusu and Miller are only sophomores. But these bizarre tournament upsets have now happened to Frese a lot in the last five years. And while it seems promising that this team, Maryland’s best shot at a championship in a while, is anchored by a young core of players who should return, keeping the group together might be its own challenge. Frese had two starters transfer last year, and barely half an hour after yesterday’s game ended, freshman star Angel Reese was liking and retweeting various complaints about the limited minutes she got down the stretch. The vibes are not good. This team was supposed to cancel out whatever it was Mark Turgeon did all year. It was supposed to bring balance to the Maryland athletic department, not leave it in darkness!