Less than three weeks ago, Maryland women’s basketball looked to be firing on all cylinders. The Terps played one of their best games of the season in an 80-64 win over No. 18 Iowa on Jan. 4, and appeared to have a formula that would serve them well for the rest of the season.
Maryland had mostly a balanced attack an offense that featured plenty of threats from down low and outside, along with a defense that could force turnovers and make oppponents uncomfortable. Brenda Frese’s team continued to roll with that same approach three days later in a 71-44 win over Wisconsin that extended its win streak to 13 games.
Of course, just a few days later, Frese would have to adjust that approach. Sophomore sharpshooter Blair Watson tore her right ACL in practice Jan. 10, depriving the Terps of one of their top offensive weapons. The result the following day against Michigan State wasn’t pretty, as Maryland committed 24 turnovers in an 82-68 loss to the Spartans. A narrow win over Indiana on Jan. 16 was also uninspiring.
With Ohio State coming in six days later, Maryland looked like a team heading in the wrong direction.
Fast forward to Monday night’s 99-69 over the 12th-ranked Buckeyes, and it looks like Watson’s injury could just be another bump in the road. The Terps played their best game of the season, and looked like a team geared up for another tournament run instead of one trying just to get through the season after losing a top weapon.
“What I love about this team is they just keep putting their head down and working,” Frese said after the win. “We’re not going to feel sorry for ourselves for the people we don’t have. Like I told them to start the game, we’re going to continue to talk about what we do have, and that’s a team that when they’re locked in and committed and make the right plays, great things can happen.”
All it took was a tinkering of the same formula that got them to this point.
One of the weapons Maryland still has is Kaila Charles, who plays her best basketball on the biggest stages. The sophomore guard has averaged 29 points and 10 rebounds in Maryland’s four games against ranked opponents, and scored a career-high 32 points against the Buckeyes.
The Terps still have strong outside threats in Kristen Confroy and Eleanna Christinaki; the latter scored 21 points and hit five shots from behind the arc in the first 12 minutes of Monday’s game. They still have good options in down low in Stephanie Jones and Brianna Fraser, who aren’t always flashy but can make plays around the rim and get second chance opportunities.
Last but not least, they still have the pieces for a strong defense, something that had been missing without Watson. Maryland held Ohio State to 18 points below its season average and Charles was fantastic on the nation’s leading scorer in Kelsey Mitchell, who scored just 15 points on 13 shots. Even though the Buckeyes missed some of their usual shots Monday, they still had to work for plenty of typically easy opportunities.
If the Terps play every game like this, they won’t lose again until the NCAA Tournament. But the odds of that happening are slim. A college basketball season is filled with peaks and valleys, and Maryland was at its peak Monday night. Less than two weeks ago, the Terps were in a deep valley.
“We have a valuable lesson against Michigan State when we’re not in that groove anything can happen,” Frese said.
Both games are good learning experiences for a team that has a tough stretch to end the regular season. Six of Maryland’s last nine games are on the road, including trips to No. 16 Michigan and Rutgers. The Terps will also travel to Minnesota and Nebraska, who have each knocked off ranked teams at home, and have a rematch with Michigan State in East Lansing.
That’s a daunting month, but after watching Maryland last night, it’s hard to not feel optimistic. The Terps are still at the top of the Big Ten standings after going through an offseason full of exits, integrating another freshman point guard and adding a player midseason only to lose one a month later.
A tough slate of games is just another challenge for a team that’s had plenty this season. And given what’s happened after every previous challenge, it could be just a minor inconvenience.