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NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 preview: No. 4-seed Maryland women’s basketball vs. No. 1-seed Stanford

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As they head to Spokane, the Terps seem to be peaking at the right time.

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Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics

No. 4-seed Maryland women’s basketball is rolling ahead of Friday night’s Sweet 16 showdown with No. 1-seed Stanford in Spokane, Washington.

The Terps (23-8) moved past their first two NCAA Tournament opponents – No. 13-seed Delaware and No. 12-seed Florida Gulf Coast – with ease. Having the privilege to host the first two rounds due to being a top-four seed, Maryland used the Xfinity Center atmosphere to its advantage.

“I love where this team is at when you talk about they’re locked in, they’re focused,” head coach Brenda Frese said. “How they’ve attacked the tournament, the response from the Big Ten Tournament — having the last two weeks of practice leading up to it — and this is where you hope the adversity and the battles that we have faced all season really pay off.”

Last Friday’s first-round matchup against the Blue Hens was never competitive. The Terps raced out to a 27-17 first-quarter lead and ultimately defeated Delaware, 102-71. Maryland’s 102 points stand as its third-highest scoring output of the season and its most points scored since Jan. 6 against Penn State. Junior guards Ashley Owusu and Diamond Miller were phenomenal versus Delaware, combining for 47 points on 18-of-26 shooting.

Two days later, Maryland blew past FGCU, 89-65. Maryland’s star backcourt of Owusu and Miller shined again, combining for 44 points. Throw in All-American sophomore forward/guard Angel Reese’s 21 points, and the trio combined for as many points as FGCU scored in total.

With the win over the Eagles, Maryland advanced to its second straight Sweet 16 and its seventh appearance in the Round of 16 in the past 10 tournaments.

Friday’s game is set for a late 9:30 p.m. tip and will air on ESPN. Let’s take a deeper look at the reigning national champions.

“We’re gonna have to come out against the defending national champs and put a tremendous 40-minute game, a complete 40-minute game, to be able to advance in this tournament,” Frese said.

Stanford Cardinal (30-3, 16-0 Pac-12)

2020-21 record: 31-2 (19-2 Pac-12, National Champions)

Head coach Tara VanDerveer is a Hall of Famer and a basketball legend. Coaching at Stanford since the 1985-86 season, VanDerveer has won three national titles and has compiled over 1,000 wins at the university. Her success has prompted a greater title than just a head coach title; the Stanford athletics website labels her as “The Setsuko Ishiyama Director of Women’s Basketball.”

Maryland and Stanford previously faced off this season on Nov. 27 in The Bahamas. The then-No. 2 ranked, shorthanded Terps fell to the Cardinal, 86-68. Maryland was without Miller (knee), graduate student guard Katie Benzan (illness) and junior forward/guard Faith Masonius (illness, she tore her ACL on Jan. 2). The adversity left Maryland with only five true rotation players, and it struggled immensely. Owusu shined with 30 points, but Reese fouled out in just 6 minutes of action. Graduate student forward/guard Chloe Bibby played 40 minutes while freshman guard Shyanne Sellers played all but six seconds in just her eighth collegiate game.

Stanford dominated its first two tournament games, defeating No. 16-seed Montana State, 78-37, in the first round and No. 8-seed Kansas, 91-65, in the second. Friday’s game is posing as maybe the best game in the entire tournament. The Athletic’s Chantel Jennings reseeded Stanford and Maryland as the No. 1 and No. 2 respective teams – based on their performance in the first two rounds – in the Sweet 16.

Players to know

Haley Jones, junior guard, 6-foot-1, No. 30 – An AP First Team All-American, Jones had an incredible season to add on to an already storied Stanford career. Jones averages 12.6 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, both of which are second on the team, and a team-leading 3.6 assists per game. The Pac-12 Player of the Year is only averaging 5.5 points per game in this year’s tournament but had a legendary tournament run in 2021. Jones posted 20.5 points per game in last year’s Final Four en route to earning Most Outstanding Player honors.

Cameron Brink, sophomore forward, 6-foot-4, No. 22 – Brink had a breakout sophomore campaign, leading Stanford with 13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game. Brink’s stellar season was recognized with AP Third Team All-American and Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year honors. The Beaverton, Oregon, product provides great interior length for the Cardinal, which should make for a fascinating matchup against Reese.

“I’m not gonna really get into the matchup because, I mean, it’s about my team, and I just want to win,” Reese said. “...Even if I don’t score any point — I mean of course I need to score for us to win — but I’m gonna do whatever it takes for us to win, and I think what’s gonna be important is me staying out of foul trouble, and that’s what happened in The Bahamas, I was in foul trouble.”

Lexie Hull, senior guard, 6-foot-1, No. 12 – A three-time All-Pac-12 selection, Hull is as seasoned of a star player as they come in college basketball. Hull, whose twin Lacie is also on Stanford, put together an impressive all-around year with 12.3 points, 5.2 rebounds, two assists and 2.3 steals per game. Hull is a key part of a top-35 defense that only allows 56.5 points per game.

Strength

Championship pedigree. There are so many moving pieces that make Stanford great. In addition to their defense, the Cardinal are top-25 in scoring offense, top-15 in rebounding margin and top-five in blocks per game. All of these aspects fit to make the perfect puzzle, one that won the national title just one year ago. In a tournament where only one of 68 teams win six games in a row, the fact that Stanford has conquered it before gives it a huge boost.

“They’re a well-oiled machine, they’re the defending national champions for a reason,” Frese said. “And they can all score it, and they flow within their offense. So for us, it’s gonna come down to disrupting, making it hard, trusting our defense. I loved where we’ve been at the last two games and just having each other’s back. If someone gets beat, it’s that rotation that we’ve been able to have. Obviously, they’re gonna make plays and for me if they score, get it out of the nets and ram it down their throats to the next play.”

Weakness

Free-throw shooting. The Cardinal rank in a tie for last in the Pac-12 and 239th nationally with a 68.4% clip from the charity stripe. In a game that may come down to one or two possessions, capitalizing at the free-throw line could prove massive. Specifically, Brink and junior forward Francesca Belibi, another rotation player, both shoot below 63% from the free-throw line.

Three things to watch

1. Revenge? The first meeting between the two teams was not a true representation of Maryland. Without Miller and Benzan, it was missing two ultra-important All-Big Ten starting guards. It was a frustrating game for Maryland, but it should have a much different look to it this time around. Stanford will undoubtedly be favored Friday, but Maryland is looking like a championship-esque ballclub. These two teams promise to be much more evenly matched than the first time around.

“Like we were saying, we’re a different team,” Sellers said. “So just being able to put it all together. We had to guard shooters for FGCU and then protect the rim for Delaware. So just putting those two games together and making sure we have a solid game because Stanford plays perfect to flawless. So we have to be on our A-game and ready to go.”

2. Can Maryland’s backcourt continue to perform at an elite level? Simply put, Maryland is at its best when Owusu and Miller have their fingerprints all over the game. Both players came into Maryland as freshmen together, and they have a chance to do something special in the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend. Maryland’s mantra all season has been to “complete the mission” in avenging its Sweet 16 loss last season by making a deep run in March. It will likely go as far as this duo will take it.

“I really thought that connectedness between Diamond, Ashley and Angel is, obviously, that’s what separates us,” Frese said. “...They set the tone, and we’re able to play through all of them, and I think that’s why you’re seeing such great basketball.”

3. Playing as an underdog. Maryland has been counted out at various stages throughout the season. When the Terps got off to a 12-6 start – which included a 4-3 record in the Big Ten – the outside thoughts of a postseason run were far-fetched. Internally, playing with its backs against the wall, Maryland rebounded. Maryland ripped off an eight-game win streak from there, and doubts were silenced. According to DraftKings Sportsbook, the Terps project to be a seven-point underdog against the Cardinal. Perhaps the chip on the shoulder mentality can help Maryland upset Stanford and go even further.