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Maryland women’s basketball vs. UConn preview: Terps host 4-time defending champs

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It’s the most anticipated game of Maryland’s season.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Maggie Dixon Classic-Maryland vs Connecticut Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Maryland women’s basketball team has had a pretty successful 2016-17 season thus far. Perfect, in fact. The Terps are 12-0, ranked No. 4 in the AP Poll and No. 3 in the Coaches Poll. They have two wins over ranked teams—Louisville and Arizona State—under their belts. Their senior leaders, center Brionna Jones and guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, have played like All-Americans.

The Terps host Connecticut to round out the non-conference slate Thursday. In case you haven’t heard, UConn has won the last four national championships, hasn’t lost in 25 months and remains the unanimous top team in every poll.

This is obviously an important game for Maryland’s season. It should help prepare them for conference play, serve as somewhat of a warmup for the intensity of the postseason, and it will allow Brenda Frese to see how her team reacts to playing a blue-blood like this.

But this game is not about Maryland, and it was never going to be. This game is about UConn, and its quest to maintain indisputable dominance over the whole entire sport.

This was supposed to be a down year for the Huskies. The players that led them to four straight national titles—Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck—all left town, going 1-2-3 in the WNBA Draft. Geno Auriemma was left with nothing but a bunch of high-upside youngsters, none of whom were more than role players last season.

But Auriemma is a coaching wizard unlike any other, and those players have developed in a way that’s completely unreasonable to expect, even somehow still not all that surprising. Down-year UConn has beaten Florida State, Baylor, DePaul, Notre Dame and Ohio State already.

The Huskies’ winning streak is at 86 games. The college basketball record is 90, held by…yes, UConn, from 2008-10. If they can hold off Maryland, that record is all but certain to fall. No. 21 USF visits Storrs on Jan. 10 (in the potential record-tying game), but the Bulls shouldn’t give UConn a scare. No. 6 South Carolina awaits on Feb. 13, but by then the streak would be at 99, and the Huskies would be looking at triple digits.

The Terps will pose a real threat. They have the size, the star power, and the depth necessary to topple this team. They’ll need to have their most flawless game of the year, which is asking a lot, but it’s possible.

The game tips off at 6 p.m. ET Thursday on ESPN2.

No. 1 UConn Huskies (12-0)

2015-16 record: 38-0, AAC champs, national champs.

Head coach: Geno Auriemma is in his 32nd season at UConn. He’s been pretty successful: 966 wins, 11 titles, 17 Final Fours and six perfect seasons. He was enshrined into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006, then won six more titles after that.

Players to know

Katie Lou Samuelson, sophomore, forward, 6’3, No. 33. A year after being the nation’s top recruit, Samuelson has blossomed into a true offensive weapon. She averages a team-high 20.6 points per game and shoots an astounding 47.4 percent from three on over seven attempts per game. She doesn’t play inside much for someone her size (4.1 boards a game), but the team doesn’t really need her to.

Napheesa Collier, sophomore, forward, 6’1, No. 24. Collier was an exceptional rebounder and defender last season, and has taken full advantage of the extra shots now available to her, making 62.6 percent of them. The sophomore averages 19.6 points, 8.1 rebounds, just over two steals and just under two blocks. She was the most important player in the Notre Dame game, as the Huskies were outscored 22-15 with her in foul trouble during the second quarter but were plus-18 for the rest of the game.

Kia Nurse, junior, guard, 6’0, No. 11. The third-year starter has played 35.1 minutes per game, and while she doesn’t lead the Huskies in any major statistical categories except free throw percentage, she does everything well. She’ll probably be the one hounding Walker-Kimbrough on the wing.

Gabby Williams, junior, forward, 5’11, No. 15. One of the nation’s more impressive all-around players leads the team with 8.2 boards, 4.6 assists and 2.8 blocks per game, along with 10.4 points. Williams plays mostly in the post despite being shorter than some wing players, but she makes it work.

Crystal Dangerfield, freshman, guard, 5’5, No. 5. The top point guard prospect and the nation’s No. 3 overall recruit has adjusted to the college game pretty quickly. She’s started UConn’s last three games, although playing with the first unit has hurt her scoring numbers a tad.

Saniya Chong, senior, guard, 5’8, No. 12. One of the team’s only two seniors (and the only one in the rotation), Chong started the team’s first eight games before missing two; Dangerfield started when she returned against Nebraska, but Chong played 28 minutes. She nailed the three that served as the dagger late in last year’s matchup.

Natalie Butler, junior, center, 6’5, No. 51. The only traditional center in the Huskies’ rotation. Butler was teammates with Brionna Jones on the Fairfax Stars on the AAU circuit, and will likely match up against Jones when she enters the game. She plays only 17 minutes on average, but hauls in nearly five rebounds per game.

Strength

Shooting. The Huskies have a .490/.418/.781 shooting line that would be enviable for an individual player, let alone an entire team. They hit 7.6 threes per game, with Samuelson the most potent threat from deep.

Weakness

Size. UConn will have a size disadvantage in most matchups Thursday, and the Huskies play without a traditional center more often than not. That’s fine against most teams, and they might get away with it against Maryland if the Terps aren’t sharp, but Brionna Jones will surely have her chances. She dropped 24 on Breanna Stewart last year, and could easily surpass that total this time around.

Prediction

I’ve unofficially had Maryland in this game for a long time. The Terps have home-court advantage and their most talented team in years. Plus, the Huskies are still young. I still believe in Maryland, but with the way both teams have played recently, I’m just not as confident as I was.

UConn wins, 77-73.