Rebounds. Final Four experience. Rebounds. Poise. Rebounds. Game plan execution. Rebounds. Oh, and Rebounds. I think that about sums up what made up the difference between the Maryland women's basketball team and Notre Dame's in the Terps' disappointing 87-61 loss to the Fighting Irish in the national semi-final Sunday night in Nashville.
Perhaps the stage was simply too big. Perhaps it was too much Kayla McBride. Perhaps the foe collectively was simply too much better. Whatever the reason, though the faces, and uniforms, and numbers were familiar to those of us who watched the Terrapins all season, the on-court performance was not.
Maryland head coach Brenda Frese is known as a master motivator. "Her pre-game speeches are becoming legendary," said one of ESPN's broadcasters at the outset. Sunday night it appeared that nothing she said to her team - be it before the game, during timeouts, at halftime, or any other opportunity reached this squad on this particular night. Notre Dame's opening of the second half was, I think, emblematic of that. The Terps went to the locker room with a halftime rebounding deficit of 23-8. I have to believe closing this gap was a focus of the halftime adjustments and still Jewell Loyd scored on an offensive put back.
Sometimes in examining a loss, particularly one as lopsided as this, one can look at several columns in the box score to see the victor's thorough domination. As the opening paragraph suggests, in this case we need only look to one place - rebounds. And the Irish set that tone early with three offensive rebounds on their first possession.
Maryland entered the game with a positive rebounding margin of 11.5 per game -- third best in the country. Sunday night, the final tally was Notre Dame 50, Maryland 21. Notre Dame had 19 offensive rebounds. Maryland had 21 total and only four on the offensive glass. One reason the Irish had fewer assists and fewer assisted baskets than their season averages: second chance points. Here, the final tally was: Notre Dame 20 - Maryland 3.
Some surprising stats
All the other statistics are more or less irrelevant but here are some that might surprise you. Maryland had five turnovers in the first eight minutes of the game. They finished with 16 -- three fewer than the Fighting Irish (though ND did have a three-point edge at 19-16 in points off turnovers). The Terps had 16 assists, also one better than the Irish. Another area in which the game was reasonably equal was from the free throw line, where Maryland made 70 percent of their 20 attempts and Notre Dame made 71 percent of their 28. The Fighting Irish entered the game as the most accurate field goal shooting team in the country at 51 percent and essentially matched that number. Though the Terrapins didn't shoot as well as they typically do, 41 percent is not terribly embarrassing. Neither team shot well from beyond the arc, where the Terps sank three of 12 and the Irish three of 10.
Here are a few other impressions from the loss.
The decisive run: The game was tied at 17 with 12:43 to play in the first half. So the run came as something of a surprise - at least to me. That the Terps stayed even with the Irish for the first eight minutes despite the rebounding issues, some early turnovers, and struggling to run their half court sets against a wily and shifting Notre Dame defense seemed to bode well for Maryland. One would expect that nerves caused those early difficulties and that the Terps would find their way on the boards, as they had all season, and that they'd find space to make some mid-range jumpers that would further open space inside for Brionna Jones, who was an efficient scoring machine early for Maryland. Such would not be the case.
Coming out of the under-eight minute media timeout Notre Dame held possession and a slim 23-21 lead. Kayla McBride's jumper put the Irish up by four. On their next possession, Maryland turned the ball over leading to a run out and a traditional three point play also by McBride. A long rebound off a three point jumper led to another run out, another basket, and another Terrapins' foul that gave the Irish back to back three point plays. The teams exchanged steals before an offensive foul whistled on the Terps gave the Irish a chance to extend the lead to twelve. They did. The 10-0 run was just the the beginning. The total damage amounted to a 25-10 Notre Dame sprint over the final eight minutes of the half. At this point the game was, for all intents and purposes, over. The first possession of the second half described above was simply an exclamation point.
An emblematic play: Notre Dame's last possession of the half. Actually, let's start with Maryland's final possession. The Terps trailed by 14 and took possession with 42 seconds to play. They struggled in their half court set as they had most of the half. With three seconds left on the shot clock, Laurin Mincy launched a challenged three point jumper and missed. The Irish grabbed the rebound and with no sense of pressure, went into their half court set whipping quick passes until they spotted Madison Cable wide open on the right wing. Cable, a 47 percent three point shooter, buried her three point shot and rather then a possibly manageable 12 or 11 point halftime deficit, the Terps were in a seventeen point hole.
A telling sequence: With 3:43 to play in the game, Lindsay Allen made two free throws to put Notre Dame up by twenty-four. Markisha Wright intercepted a lackadaisical Terrapins' inbounds pass. Though they missed the shot created by the turnover, the Irish still out hustled Maryland to the ball and grabbed an offensive rebound that led to another two free throw attempts. Love him or hate him, one trait of a Geno Auriemma coached Connecticut team is that they play every possession with the same level of intensity and urgency even when their lead is twenty four. Just as Notre Dame did in this sequence.
Maryland's freshmen: They performed like freshmen and they played not like freshmen. Lexi Brown finished with an un-freshman like 11 points, 8 assists, and only 2 turnovers. On the other hand, she did finish with a freshman like 3 of 10 shooting that included one of five from three point range. Brionna Jones finished with a decidedly un-freshman like team high 16 points on 7 of 10 shooting. However, with only three rebounds, that aspect of her game was decidedly under par. Shatori Walker-Kimbrough had two steals in her thirteen minutes but was otherwise unproductive. They will all learn from this.
Maryland's bench: With one exception, the bench which was another Terrapins' strength throughout the season, was surprisingly unproductive Sunday. The one exception was Laurin Mincy. Mincy had eleven of the Terrapins' thirteen bench points and the other two came on a late game basket from Sequoia Austin.
Maryland's seniors: First, thank you Brenda for bringing Alyssa Thomas to Maryland and thank you for letting Sequoia Austin and Essence Townsend get their names in a Final Four box score. Finally, thank you, seniors. We as fans know you have given your hearts to this program and, though this specific loss is a hard way to say goodbye, we appreciate the ride.