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Maryland women's basketball: Final Four vs. Connecticut preview

Last year, the Terps left Nashville after losing to Notre Dame in a semifinal game. Did they learn enough then and can they find the formula now to upset the defending National Champion Connecticut Huskies?

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

It's been a record setting year for the Maryland Terrapins women's basketball team. Among other things, it set records for most consecutive wins in a season and in program history at 28 and it's making consecutive Final Four appearances for the first time ever, matching the success of the 2001 and 2002 men's teams.

There are no easy games when you reach this point in the season and 2015 is even more exceptional because it is only the third time all four top seeds have reached the Final Four. Still, Maryland's reward for its record-setting season is a semifinal game with the defending National Champions, the Connecticut Huskies, a team that has lost one game since the start of the 2013-14 season.

As if you need to know

How to watch:

WHO: Maryland Terrapins (34-2, 18-0 B1G) @ Connecticut Huskies (36-1, 18-0 AAC)

WHAT: Women's basketball NCAA Tournament National Semifinal

WHERE: Amalie Arena, Tampa, Fla.

WHEN: Sunday, April 5, 2015, 9:00 p.m. ET

WATCH: In Person



Who are the 2015 UConn Huskies?

This edition of the Huskies is little different from any version of the Huskies over the last quarter century or so. UConn enters the game 36-1 and brushed aside the lackluster competition of the American Athletic Conference like thick memories.

Of course, UConn didn't exactly struggle against top-level competition, either. During the season, it beat Final Four participants Notre Dame and South Carolina by 18 and 25, respectively. Its only loss of the season came in overtime in the second game of the year at Stanford -- a good team that had a somewhat erratic season. The Huskies' tournament wins (with RPI in parentheses) have come over St. Francis, N.Y. (250), Rutgers (42), Texas (21) and Dayton (13). Their lowest point output was 89 against St. Francis and their average margin of victory has been 43 points including a record-setting 51 point win over Texas in the Sweet 16.

The Huskies finished the season as the fifth-ranked team in RPI. Their strength of schedule, weighed down by a weak conference, was only rated as the 32nd most difficult. In addition to Notre Dame (who beat Maryland 92-72) the squads have two other common opponents -- South Florida and Rutgers. Maryland beat USF, 85-67, early in the season while UConn handled the Bulls three times -- twice in conference play and once in their conference tournament -- winning all three by an average of 26 points. Connecticut met Rutgers in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, coming away with a 36-point win. The Terrapins handled Rutgers twice in B1G play beating them by a combined total of 23 points.

Some serious numbers

Tale of the Tape Tale of the Tape
Maryland UConn Maryland Uconn
Win 34 36 Turnovers Forced 16.61 18.11
Loss 2 1 Turnover Margin -0.06 3.46
RPI 6 5 Blocks per Game 3.36 8.00
Strength of Schedule 27 32 Steals per Game 8.39 10.24
Record vs. RPI 1-25 5-1 1 Field Goal % 47.2 54.3
Record vs. RPI 26-50 11-0 7-0 2Pt Field Goal % 51.3 60.6
Record vs. RPI 51-100 5-1 7-0 3Pt Field Goal % 34.7 40.9
Record vs. RPI 101-200 6-0 7-0 Free Throw % 75.8 72.2
Record vs. RPI 201+ 7-0 9-0 Free Throws / Gm 20.17 15.68
Points For 79.8 90.2 Defensive Field Goal % 38.8 30.6
Points Against 60.9 48.2 Defensive 2Pt Field Goal % 42.9 32.2
Average Margin of Win 18.9 42 Defensive 3Pt Field Goal % 27.9 26.8
Rebounds For 42.6 44.1 O Points Per Possession 1.08 1.24
Rebounds Against 31.5 31 D Points Per Possession 0.83 0.66
Rebound Margin 11.1 13.1 Effective FG% 51.5 60.8
Assists per Game 16.56 21.57 Points Per Weighted Shot 1.106 1.248
Turnovers per game 15.31 12.24 Assisted Basket % 56.50 61.30
Assist / Turnover Ratio 1.08 1.76

The subscription website I use (which has been offline as much as it has been online recently) to gather tempo-free metrics, presents a four quadrant "aerial" showing how teams fare in this adjusted statistic. It establishes 0.90 as the dividing line. Teams that score more than this per possession are considered efficient offensive teams and those that hold opponents below this line are considered efficient defensive squads. The low end of the chart is 0.70 ppp and the top end is 1.10 because every one of the 349 Division I teams falls within this range -- except one.

How efficient is UConn? At 1.09 ppp, Notre Dame is the second most efficient team in the country. That's a spread of 0.15 ppp. Some 77 teams fall within that spread between the Irish and the first team that scores at 0.94 ppp, Montana. The chasm isn't quite as wide defensively -- think Snake Canyon as opposed to Grand Canyon. Connecticut's 0.66 ppp is 0.09 better than second place Princeton. You have to drop down to Campbell at number 60 to match the 0.09 gap.

Who can beat the Huskies?

Of course, the obvious answer is: "On any given night..." But not so much with UConn. On Feb. 18, 2012, St. John's went into Gampel Pavilion on the UConn campus and came away with a 57-56 win. That represents one of only 12 losses for the Huskies over the last six seasons. The other teams that have beaten them: Stanford (twice), Baylor (twice) and Notre Dame (seven times). That's it, folks. Six years. Twelve losses. Four teams.

One feature in common to all those teams (excepting St. John's) is they all had at least two players on their roster capable of taking over and dominating a game. Baylor had Brittney Griner and Odyssey Sims. Notre Dame had Skylar Diggins and Kayla McBride or Devereaux Peters. Stanford had the Ogwumike sisters. And, of course they all had solid complementary players. Even this year's Stanford team had two guards, Amber Orrange and Lili Thompson, capable of dominating a game which is exactly what the pair did in the Cardinal's upset.

The main thing they did well was isolate, drive, and penetrate one-on-one against Connecticut's guards. They shot a combined 16-of-29. They also had the Samuelson sisters make 50 percent of their shots from behind the arc. But that was the second game of the year. As the chart above shows, coach Geno Auriemma and his squad have addressed that issue.

Maryland has perimeter players capable of putting together a dominant game in Lexie Brown, Laurin Mincy and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough. The Terps Will Likely need two of them to do so if they are to have a chance to beat the Huskies. However, the Terps are 0-3 all time against the Huskies and they had a domination capable player -- Alyssa Thomas -- in each of those games.

Two of the three games have come in the regular season and Maryland's losses in those two games by just 15 and 17 points fall into the respectable category. However, the Huskies tend to be a bit of a different animal in the postseason. The teams met in the 2013 Sweet 16. In a game played in Bridgeport, Connecticut handed Maryland a 76-50 thrashing.

Players to Watch

Looking at UConn's roster, I could easily close my eyes, chant "Eeny, meeny, miney, mo," and not go too far wrong with any player I picked. All five starters average over 10 points and two assists per game. The eight players who comprise Connecticut's principal rotation, have scored 97.7 percent of the Huskies' points (led by Breanna Stewart's 17.6 average), pull down 95.7 percent of its rebounds (again led by Stewart at 7.6) and with just three assists by Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, UConn will have five players with 100 or more assists.

If you think I'm kidding about picking players randomly, let me add that UConn's second and third leading rebounders and leading shot blocker come off the bench. Still, I guess we'll go with its one First Team and two Second Team AP All-Americans.

Breanna Stewart #30, junior, forward, 6'4". Where do you start with Stewart a unanimous AP selection? Inside. Outside. Rebounds. Blocks. The junior, who has been twice named the Final Four Most Outstanding Player, does it all for the Huskies. As noted above, she leads UConn in scoring and rebounding. She's comfortable stepping out to beyond the arc where she shoots at a 31.5 percent clip or staying inside where she connects on 59.2 percent of her shots. She blocks 2.6 shots per game and is second in assists at 3.2. Oh, and she makes nearly 80 percent of her free throws.

Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis #23, senior, forward, 5'11". In UConn's game against Dayton, Mosqueda-Lewis became the all-time leader in three point shots made in NCAA women's basketball history. The senior has connected on 50 percent of her 236 attempts for the year. And this is no anomaly. She shoots 45 percent from behind the arc for her career. Mosqueda-Lewis is not one dimensional, however. She hands out nearly three assists per game and contributes 4.2 rebounds. She shoots 94.1 percent from the free throw line and leads the contingent of four UConn players in the top 30 in effective field goal percentage at 68.4.

Moirah Jefferson #4, junior, guard, 5'7". If you were impressed with Mosqueda-Lewis' 50 percent three point field goal percentage, then prepare yourself to be even more impressed by Jefferson's 50.5. At 14.2 points per game, Jefferson is the Huskies' third leading scorer behind Stewart and Mosqueda-Lewis. She's also the main engine driving Connecticut's offense with nearly five assists per game. And she doesn't slack off on the defensive side, either (no one on UConn does) where she leads the Huskies with 2.54 steals per game.

Wrapping it up

It might be easy to think that one way for the Terps to use their greater depth to attack the Huskies and tire their eight-player rotation. That may be the case if Maryland can keep the game close. However, despite appearing to have a short bench, Auriemma rotates his players freely. Jefferson leads Connecticut in minutes played but averages only 28.2 minutes per game. (Mosqueda-Lewis averages 28.3 but has played in only 36 of UConn's 37 games.)

To pull off the upset, Maryland will have to limit its turnovers and shoot well, especially from behind the arc, because the Huskies are likely to limit the Terrapins' free throws which have been one of the staples of the Terps' offense. Maryland scores 19.3 percent of its points from the free throw line, but Connecticut commits just a shade more than 11 fouls per game. Its opponents score just 11.82 percent of their points or about six points per game from the charity stripe.

As Dayton showed in the first half of the Elite Eight game and as Stanford showed in handing Connecticut its lone loss of the year, the Huskies are somewhat vulnerable to hot shooting from three point range. For the year, opponents score 31.6 percent of their points from behind the arc. The Terps may need to start their offense from the outside in rather than from the inside out. However, Connecticut showed it will adjust and lock down defensively. It held the Flyers to just five points in the first eight minutes of the second half of that game.

The Terps left last year's Final Four in Nashville on the short end of a 26-point rout by Notre Dame. The Terps were within four with 7:40 to play in the first half, but the Irish closed the period on a 23-10 run that effectively put the game out of reach. If Maryland is to take that next step, it will need to avoid giving up that type of run to Connecticut because if it does, its stay in Tampa will be as brief as its stay in Nashville.