In what should be the only game to challenge them before the ACC Tournament, the Maryland women traveled to Atlanta where they methodically dismantled the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets by a deceptively close 79-62 final Saturday afternoon. While securing their tenth conference win against four losses, the final margin could have been much wider had the Terps done a few things a bit better. Principal among those is improving their free throw shooting. Despite not shooting up to the standard they set earlier in the season recently, the Terps shot an astonishingly bad 6-16 from the line a fact made all the more implausible because even with their recent troubles, Maryland entered the game leading the ACC with a 75.8 team free throw percentage.
On the other hand, the win was more impressive than deceptive. Impressive because the Terps won by seventeen on the road with no points from their second leading scorer Shatori Walker Kimbrough. Impressive because of a defensive effort that Tech coach MaChelle Joseph called the best she'd seen from a Maryland team in her eleven seasons with the Yellow Jackets. Impressive because the Terps won by seventeen while not only shooting poorly from the free throw line but also making only three of fifteen from behind the three point arc. Impressive because of their 60-26 advantage in points in the paint. Impressive because Maryland again shared the ball exceptionally well with 21 assists on 35 made baskets.
For the most part, Maryland was focused and ready to play from the opening tip jumping out to a 7-0 lead as Katie Rutan continued her locked in shooting stroke dropping in a three pointer to open the game that was followed in quick succession by a put back by Alicia DeVaughn and a basket by Lexie Brown who got out ahead of the Georgia Tech defense to hit a pull up jumper on the fast break. Though Tech would twice draw within one early in the first half, the Terps would never relinquish their lead.
Maryland methodically built their lead in the first half growing it from five at the under 16 media timeout, to six at the under 12, to eight at the under 8, and to twelve points at the under 4 minute media timeout. Then, they hit a brief dry, sloppy, lazy spell where they watched Tech score on some offensive rebounds, and they continued to miss free throws. Fortunately for Terrapins fans, they had done enough to hold a nine point bulge at 35-26 into the break.
Georgia Tech opened the second half with possession and down by nine. Both teams missed their opening shots. Then Thomas pulled down a rebound and ran a picture book fast break making a long bounce pass to Rutan who passed back to AT for the layup giving the Terps back the double digit lead they'd relinquished as the first half ended. The lead, which would grow to as much as 21, wouldn't dip below 10 again.
The Terps continued to have success against the Yellow Jackets' lack of interior defense as first Thomas, then DeVaughn then Brionna Jones all scored in the paint. When Lexie Brown intercepted a pass and scored on a layup that put the Terps up 45-29, Georgia Tech used a timeout with 16:36 remaining. The timeout succeeded in slowing Maryland's momentum but it failed to impair their efficiency or grant the Ramblin' Wreck any real momentum of their own.The teams essentially traded baskets and when the clock stopped with 11:51 to play, the home team had shaved all of two points off the Terrapins lead and trailed 53-39.
Tech made their big run coming out of this break scoring four straight to close to within ten. Another exchange of baskets kept them within ten but three straight Maryland baskets - two coming on fast break layups by Rutan - propelled the lead back to sixteen. From this point, the Jackets would come no closer than fourteen. When Thomas made two free throws (hallelujah!) with 2:39 to play, the Terps had that 21 point lead I wrote of earlier and Frese began to empty her bench. Three missed jumpers late in the game dropped Maryland's shooting percentage just below fifty percent for the game.
If you're wondering how close Alyssa Thomas come to recording her fifth triple double of the season that would tie the NCAA record, the answer is not too close. The senior did record her twenty-second double-double of the season with 15 points and 10 rebounds. She added 5 assists. Brionna Jones and Katie Rutan shared high scoring honors with Thomas while Lexie Brown busily handed out nine assists. The Terps also got solid contributions off the bench from Malina Howard, who scored 7 points and grabbed 5 rebounds in just 12 minutes of playing time, and from Tierney Pfirman who also pulled down five boards while scoring eight and who again provided the team a jolt of energy when she was on the floor.
In other news, Maryland got a bit of a break in the ACC standings Saturday when Virginia Tech shocked North Carolina 50-47 in Chapel Hill handing the Tar Heels their fifth conference loss. If my most recent cursory look at the ACC standings is correct, the Terps need only to split their final two conference games to assure themselves of a coveted top four finish because they hold the head to head tiebreaker with UNC. A sweep of their final two games coupled with an NC State split in their final two (and the Wolfpack hosts Notre Dane to close the season) will land the Terps in third.
We can hope that while the coaches prepare for Thursday's game at Boston College they will also find a way to pull the squad from their recent free throw shooting doldrums. The Terps have shot under 60 percent from the charity stripe over the last five games and free throws will be important in the ACC and NCAA Tournaments.