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No. 8 Maryland women’s basketball vs. No. 1 South Carolina preview

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The stage is set for Sunday’s marquee matchup.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics

No. 8 Maryland women’s basketball’s biggest test of its season has arrived.

The Terps will travel to Columbia, South Carolina to take on the undefeated No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks on Sunday.

“Been a great couple days of practices,” head coach Brenda Frese said. “Another great test for us. I know our team is excited to be able to get down to play South Carolina, but it’s been nice to be able to kind of work on us and prepare of them, but two of our better practices... obviously, a tall order when you talk about South Carolina.”

Following a winless trip in The Bahamas, Maryland rebounded in a big way. The Terps welcomed back both starting graduate student guard Katie Benzan and “sixth man” junior guard/forward Faith Masonius from illness ahead of their Dec. 2 matchup against Miami. Since then, Maryland has rattled off three straight wins over the Hurricanes, Rutgers and Purdue. All three games were close in the fourth quarter, but the Terps managed to win them by an average margin of 12.3 points per game.

Maryland found itself trailing the Boilermakers at halftime on Wednesday but used a massive 50-31 second half to secure the 86-71 victory. Junior guard Ashley Owusu led Maryland with 20 points and nine rebounds while adding five assists. Every single starter scored at least 12 points in the win, as the Terps improved to 9-2 overall and 2-0 in Big Ten play.

The status of junior guard Diamond Miller – Owusu’s sidekick in the Terps’ star-studded backcourt – is still up in the air as she has been considered day-to-day with a knee injury for the majority of the season. Miller was a limited participant in practice as recently as Tuesday and went through warmups against the Boilermakers, but she has only recorded 15 total minutes in two games this season.

“Unsure,” Frese said of Miller’s status for Sunday. “She’s still day-to-day.”

Sunday’s showdown is set for a 3 p.m. tip and will air on ESPN.

South Carolina Gamecocks (9-0)

2020-21 record: 26-5 (14-2 SEC)

Head coach Dawn Staley is in her 14th season at the helm of the South Carolina women’s basketball program, and what an incredible stint it has been for her. Staley’s 2017 team won the national championship, and the Gamecocks have been to the Final Four three times during her tenure. The unanimous National Coach of the Year in 2020, Staley has compiled a 340-103 record at the school and a 510-183 record in her career. She was the head coach at Temple for eight seasons prior to arriving in Columbia.

The Gamecocks have responded to their heartbreaking one-point loss to Stanford in the 2021 Final Four with nine straight wins to start the season. None of this should come as too much of a surprise, as South Carolina returns all five starts and all 11 letterwinners from last season’s squad.

Maryland will be the fourth top-10 opponent that South Carolina has faced thus far. South Carolina opened its season with a 66-57 road win against then-No. 5 NC State. It also had no problems taking care of then-No. 9 Oregon, 80-63, on Nov. 21 and then-No. 2 Connecticut, 73-57, on Nov. 22.

Players to know

Aliyah Boston, junior forward, 6-foot-5, No. 4 — Considered widely as one of the best players and perhaps the most dominant post presence — on both sides of the floor — in the country, Boston will be a tremendous test for the Terps. Boston leads the Gamecocks with 16.8 points, nine rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game. Named the National Player of the Year by The Athletic and the Lisa Leslie Center of the Year in 2020-21, Boston’s honors are in line with her national reputation.

“I think it’s always great... we want to go against the best just so we can showcase what we got as well,” graduate student forward/guard Chloe Bibby said. “Angel Reese is an absolute bucket down there. We’ve got some All-Americans down there, too... this team is just a bunch of competitors. So, we love that we get to go against the best. Obviously, Aliyah Boston is a great player, so we’re really excited for that matchup.”

Zia Cooke, junior guard, 5-foot-9, No. 1 — In addition to being a WBCA and USBWA All-America Honorable Mention, Cooke was named to the All-SEC First Team last season. Cooke is averaging 11.8 points per game, a dip from her team-leading 15.9 points per game in her sophomore campaign. However, Cooke’s three biggest scoring outcomes of the season came against the Gamecocks’ three best opponents.

Destanni Henderson, senior guard, 5-foot-7, No. 3 — The shortest player on South Carolina’s roster, Henderson has started the season on an emphatic note. Henderson is the Gamecocks’ second-leading scorer at 12.3 points per game but leads the team with 4.5 assists and 1.8 steals per game. She has proved herself from deep this season, making exactly half of her 28 three-point attempts. Henderson did not play against Kansas State on Dec. 3. Staley, as of Friday, considers her day-to-day ahead of Sunday’s matchup.

Strength

Experience and depth. For a team that has not lost yet and is ranked first nationally, strong points could be picked out of a hat. One thing that immediately stands out, though, is the experience of Staley’s team. Five starters returning from a Final Four team is rare enough, but to have the entire roster return is something special. South Carolina has eight players that average at least 16 minutes per game and three more that play at least 9.9 minutes per night.

Weakness

Turning teams over. Through nine games, the Gamecocks have only generated 7.2 steals per contest, ranking 11th in the SEC. Taking care of the ball is an area that the Terps excel. Maryland leads the Big Ten with a +6.82 turnover margin, and its opponents only average 4.6 steals per game. Maryland only averages 11.3 turnovers per game, which is the fifth-lowest mark in the nation. If the Terps can maintain an extra possession or two, it could help them down the stretch against the Gamecocks.

Three things to watch

1. Can Angel Reese string together a strong inside performance against Boston? The sophomore forward/guard has put forth good performances against other All-American bigs thus far. Against Baylor and NaLyssa Smith, Reese scored 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting and grabbed nine boards. Four days later against Elissa Cunane and NC State, Reese dropped 24 points on 9-of-14 shooting and corralled another nine boards.

If Reese, who leads Maryland with 18.5 points and 10.2 rebounds per game, can put up similar numbers against Boston on the national stage, she will be on everyone’s radar entering the heart of Big Ten play. The Terps will need her to stay out of foul trouble and have a great game as part of the recipe to knock off No. 1.

2. Which team can earn the edge in the all-time series? The two storied programs have only played four times before with the most recent matchup coming in 2019. The Gamecocks came into College Park and defeated the Terps, 63-54. Both players being freshmen at the time, Boston (14 points) and Owusu (17 points) were each of their team’s respective leading scorers. Now, Owusu and the Terps get a chance to avenge that home loss with an upset win on the road.

“This team is the ultra competitors,” Frese said. “We’re really, really excited. Obviously, just starting the series, both teams are 2-2, and the last time we were down there we had a lot of success.”

In its last trip to Columbia on Nov. 18, 2018, Maryland demolished South Carolina, 85-61. Current graduate student guard Channise Lewis started and recorded a double-double, scoring 10 points and dishing out 12 assists.

3. Can the Terps get to the line and dictate the tempo? All season long, Maryland has got to the charity stripe with ease. With 186 free throws made, the Terps rank first in the entire country. For reference, South Carolina has only allowed 121 free-throw attempts this season. On Sunday, something has to give. If Maryland can get to the line early and often, it will be another key for a massive win.