A game that loomed large on Maryland's schedule at the beginning of the season acquired added weight and significance Thursday night when the Terrapins' women's basketball team unexpectedly left Charlottesville on the short end of an 86-72 final score. What, you ask, could be more significant than playing the second ranked and undefeated Notre Dame Fighting Irish on your home court in front of a national television audience? The answer lies in the expanded ACC and the format of the ACC Conference Tournament.
In recent years the top four seeds in the tournament received a bye and needed to play three games in three days to win the title. The last part of this statement remains true. The top four seeds will need to play three games in as many days to secure the championship. The difference from past years is that these teams now receive two byes. Finish fifth through ninth and you play four days. Finish tenth or lower and you play five in a row.
Of the four remaining home games after the Terps take on the Irish, only the game against Florida State looks to pose a challenge. However, the Terps have six games on the road starting Thursday night at twenty-third ranked NC State. They then travel to Syracuse to face a team that certainly challenged them in Comcast. Maryland also has games at Boston College, Miami, Duke, and Georgia Tech. The first two listed (Miami precedes Duke and BC is the last road game of the season) are games the Terrapins should win. Then again, they should have won at Virginia. Games against Georgia Tech are always battles and it's unlikely Maryland can count on 43 free throw attempts in Atlanta. As for Duke, the Terps have dropped seven of the last nine games between the teams and haven't won at Cameron Indoor since 2008. I trust you all are smart enough to see the challenges.
As for Monday's contest, Maryland last played Notre Dame in the NCAA Regional final (Elite Eight) in Raleigh two seasons ago. It's a game the Terrapins would just as soon forget as the Irish handed the Terps a 31 point drubbing. The makeup of the teams is quite different, though. Notre Dame returns just one starter - Kayla McBride - and one other player who played significant minutes - Natalie Achonwa - in 2012. The Terps bring back three starters - Laurin Mincy, Alicia DeVaughn, and Alyssa Thomas as well as Brene Moseley.
The Irish certainly know how to win. They entered the season with three consecutive Final Four appearances and haven't missed a beat this season coming to College Park a perfect 18-0 despite losing Skylar Diggins to graduation. Having spent recent seasons as a member of the old Big East Conference where they regularly played and (recently) regularly defeated UConn and coming off last week's road win at Tennessee they are accustomed to big game atmospheres and playing in front of large hostile crowds.
Let's take a look at what this season's edition of Notre Dame brings to the table starting on the offensive end of the floor. The Irish lead the ACC and are fourth in the NCAA scoring over 88 points per game. The Terps are no slouches averaging 84.8 points per game - second in the ACC and number 7 in the country. While Maryland shoots an impressive 48.1% from the floor, Notre Dame leads the country making 51.6% of their shots. They don't shoot often from behind the arc where they average only twelve attempts per game but when they do, they make a rather remarkable NCAA best 43% of those shots. If you're starting to discern a pattern here, I shouldn't have to ask where their per game average of 22.4 assists ranks them. They only turn the ball over 14 times per game and sit a "lowly" fifth in the country in assist to turnover ratio.
Defensively, Notre Dame yields 59.6 points per game topping the ACC. The Terps, on the other hand, give up just over 60 per game. Opponents make 37.2% of their field goal attempts putting the Irish in the middle of the league. After their woeful performance at Virginia, Maryland's field goal percentage defense fell to 35.7 and dropped them to the middle of the ACC overall. Maryland remains the top defender of the three point shot holding opponents to twenty-seven percent. The Terps hold a slim advantage on the glass with their 12.8 rebounding margin just one slot better than ND's margin of 12 per game. Both teams pull down about 15 offensive rebounds per game and Maryland has a slight edge on the defensive boards.
It should come as little surprise that Notre Dame is a team of great balance whether you look at scoring, assists or rebounds. Sophomore guard Jewel Lloyd leads the Irish averaging 16.9 point per game. The senior holdovers from the 2012 team McBride and Achonwa follow Lloyd closely at 16.6 and 14.2 respectively. Michaela Mabrey and Taya Reimer see plenty of time off the bench and each average about nine points per game. In another demonstration of the team's balance, McBride has led the team in scoring six times, Lloyd four, and Achonwa four. On the other hand, while Alyssa Thomas has led Maryland in scoring in all but four of the Terrapins' eighteen games, the Terps may be even more balanced than the Irish. Thomas leads the Terps at 18.3 per game but Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, at 11.3, is the only other player averaging double figures. All eight remaining players in Maryland's regular ten player rotation contribute between five and eight points per game.
In terms of distributing the ball, Lindsey Allen and McBride share the team lead at 3.7 assists per game. Mabrey also hands out about three assists per game while Lloyd and Achonwa each contribute an additional two and a half. Maryland uses three principal distributors - Lexie Brown at 4.2, Brene Moseley at 3.8, and Thomas at 3.4 - while Laurin Mincy and Katie Rutan each add over two per game.
Achonwa leads the team in rebounding averaging 8.5 per game. But the Terps will have to focus on finding their block out assignments as four other Irish players average better than five rebounds a contest. For the Terps, Alyssa Thomas pulls down about one of every four rebounds with Alicia DeVaughn as the only other Terrapin who averages over five.
Fans who watch or attend should expect a flowing, offensively efficient game. If both teams play their normal game, it should be a closely contested, high scoring affair that could be hanging in the balance in the game's final possessions.
Game-time: 7:00 p.m. Monday
How to watch: The game will be featured on ESPN2 as part of their Big Monday programming.