Maryland women’s basketball has waited all year for its superstar backcourt pairing to erupt en route to a season-defining win.
Whether it was injuries or inconsistency, the vintage performances from junior guards Diamond Miller and Ashley Owusu just were not seen frequently this year. Frustration mounted at times this season when both were not 100%. After an 86-68 loss to Stanford on Nov. 27, a game that Miller missed with a knee injury, head coach Brenda Frese said that Owusu was “Batman without Robin.”
On Sunday against No. 12-seed Florida Gulf Coast, the pair performed like superheroes.
Driving to the hoop, shooting from distance or making rigorous defensive plays seem easy, the two guards were nothing short of superb against the Eagles.
Owusu and Miller combined for 44 points on 17-of-31 shooting, and they willed Maryland to the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 16 in an 89-65 defeat of FGCU.
“You just see, obviously, that consistency factor we have to have from both of them,” Frese said. “And it was unfortunate [because] they both had to go through injuries this year, so we could never get that continuity together. But I can’t say enough about both of them in these last two games. They’re back to playing where you can see how they know they how to play. They’re comfortable, they’re confident and healthy, and it’s made a big difference, obviously, for us.”
The Eagles came into Sunday’s matchup with a chance to make history, as they have never advanced to the Sweet 16 since becoming a full Division I member in 2011. FGCU, with the nickname “Raining Threes” was rightfully regarded as a tough threat to contain from distance; it leads the country with 11.9 3-point field goals per game.
Speaking to the media Saturday, Maryland head coach Brenda Frese had nothing but respect for FGCU — she acknowledged it as “under-seeded” and “playing with a chip on their shoulder” — the No. 23 ranked team in March 14’s AP Poll. A Maryland win would send it to its seventh regional semifinal in the last 10 NCAA Tournaments.
A blazing pace was expected on Sunday, and it certainly lived up to that expectation just moments into the game. Maryland led 14-11 at the first-quarter media timeout, but FGCU had already taken nine 3-pointers in just over five minutes. FGCU’s “five out” look on offense forced Maryland to be on alert to extend on 3-point shooters at all times, a vast contrast from the offenses it faced in Big Ten play.
The Eagles trailed by as many as seven in the first frame, but an 8-0 run allowed it to take the lead for the first time with fewer than two minutes to play in the quarter. Graduate student guard Katie Benzan and senior guard Tishara Morehouse traded three-for-two to end the first quarter, knotting the game at 23 apiece. Morehouse, standing at only 5-foot-3, is as fast of a guard as Maryland had seen all season long.
Miller entered the second quarter on a 3-point reign of her own, draining two triples in a span of 90 seconds to keep pace with FGCU’s bombardment. Miller was sensational in the first half, entering the locker room with a Maryland-leading 14 points.
Graduate student guard Kendall Spray filled it up with 17 first-half points and five 3-point makes, but it was Maryland turning defense into offense that changed the tide before halftime.
“She’s an amazing shooter, and she kept us in it for a quarter and a half,” FGCU head coach Karl Smesko said. “But we didn’t keep scoring and they did. So they got away from us pretty, midway through that third quarter.”
The Terps were down 39-36 with three and a half minutes left in the second quarter, but they stormed into the locker room on an 11-0 run to take a 47-39 halftime lead. FGCU turned the ball over four times in that span, and Maryland made sure to take advantage.
Maryland’s second-quarter defensive effort was highlighted by an emphatic Miller block on Morehouse with just over one and a half minutes left in the half. Owusu stormed over to throw the ball off Morehouse to retain Maryland possession and was rewarded with a layup on the other end.
Maryland received everything it could have wanted and more from its star-studded backcourt in the first half. Owusu added 11 first-half points, as the duo combined for 25 points in the first 20 minutes.
“She’s put a lot of hard work in, and you can see it’s all coming together at the right time,” said Frese of Owusu. “And that’s what you need from your floor general is like, she’s such an elite-level passer that it allows us to do a lot of great things, but then she’s so big and strong... she just finished plays.”
The Terps’ 11-0 run carried well into the second half. It ultimately ended as a 19-0 run, and Maryland extended its lead to 55-39 with about seven minutes to play in the third quarter. The first few minutes of the third quarter are often so critical in whether a game will come down to the wire or end in a blowout, and Maryland aced that task.
Maryland outscored FGCU, 24-13, in the third quarter, grabbing full control of the game. Reese came alive with 10 third-quarter points, bringing her to 19 points on the day, and Maryland was cruising.
The Eagles competed in the fourth quarter, but Maryland’s defense was too difficult to crack.
Sparingly used bench players sophomore guard Taisiya Kozlova and freshman forward Emma Chardon checked in late in the fourth quarter, as Maryland’s coaching staff was able to share hugs and smiles with some of its starters.
“This is the first time I think this season that we’re all 100% healthy,” Miller said. “So just to have that back is amazing, and I think we’re thriving right in the right moments.”
Maryland protected its home court in dominant fashion, and it now heads to the Sweet 16.
Three things to know
1. Raining Threes? Yes, but Maryland weathered the storm. It is hard to stop FGCU’s 3-point attack — it shot 36.2 threes per game heading into Sunday — but Maryland knew it would have to contain it. Attempting 18 3-pointers — they only attempted 13 two-pointers in the first half — the Eagles were right on pace for that mark at halftime. FGCU attempted 35 total threes on Sunday and only made 11 of them. Maryland was able to withstand its unique style in another NCAA Tournament victory.
“I think our staff did a phenomenal job,” Frese said. “I can’t say enough about our coaching staff of just how prepared we were to be able to have different wrinkles and adjustments.”
2. Maryland went on a game-changing 19-0 run that carried through halftime and lasted more than six minutes. The Xfinity Center had a tense feel to it as FGCU went ahead by three following the second quarter’s media timeout. Frese had other plans, though. The Terps, seemingly still adjusting to FGCU’s offense, locked down on the defensive end late in the second quarter, securing the momentum and the lead. Maryland scored 19 unanswered points to take a 16-point lead early in the third quarter and never looked back.
3. Peaking at the right time? It certainly seems like it. Maryland avoided the College Park pod’s No. 5-seed in Virginia Tech, but make no doubt about it, FGCU is a very good basketball team. The Terps’ backcourt is playing its best basketball of the season, while Reese put forth another powerful showing down low. A likely matchup with No. 1-seed Stanford awaits Maryland in Spokane, Washington, next weekend.
“I’m gonna roll with my girls all day, and I know they got my back and I got their back,” Reese said. “So I think we have each other’s back at the right time at the right moment. As long as we stick together within our circle, we can go as far as we want to go.”