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In win over South Carolina, Maryland women’s basketball looked like itself again

After a slightly down year, the Terps look to be back among the nation’s elite.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Maryland at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Spend enough time around Brenda Frese and her team, and you’ll learn quickly that three words define Maryland women’s basketball: defend, rebound, run. It’s a motto that’s led Frese to great success in College Park, as the Terps play an exciting brand of basketball and have become a mainstay in the top 25.

But last year, an attrition-plagued Maryland didn’t live up to those three words enough. The Terps’ defense was respectable for most of last season, but started to break down more often after Blair Watson tore her ACL. Part of that was because Maryland didn’t rebound as well as it had in years past and struggled to control the glass on the defensive end. Fewer one-and-done possessions meant less time to get out in the open court, where the Terps excel.

With the core coming back and a top recruiting class coming in, all signs pointed towards 2017-18 being nothing more than a down year. Sunday night’s 85-61 win at No. 10 South Carolina sealed the deal.

In the first few minutes, Maryland looked a team still on the younger side that wasn’t ready to play in front of a raucous crowd. There was still time to come back, but struggling to control the ball and letting South Carolina players cut through the lane with ease weren’t good early signs.

After the Terps settled down, though, they were dominant, and it all came back to the three things Frese preaches. They stopped allowing easy drives inside and dared the Gamecocks to shoot. They dominated the glass, outrebounding South Carolina 53-29 and getting an offensive rebound on over 61 percent of their misses. Even when the Gamecocks tried to push the pace early, Maryland responded by doing the same. Except for a brief stretch in the third quarter, the Terps controlled the tempo of the game.

It wasn’t that it was a slow build either. Maryland went from looking like it would be blown out of Colonial Life Arena to taking over the game in the blink of an eye. Not even 10 minutes after leading by 12 points, South Carolina found itself trailing by 15 thanks to a 26-1 Terrapins run. The Gamecocks tried to come back in the game with an effective full-court press, but even then never cut the lead to single digits. Despite having only one senior on its roster, Maryland still has an experienced core that played big minutes last season. A group led by juniors Kaila Charles, Stephanie Jones and Watson didn’t let down and handed Dawn Staley her worst loss at home to any team besides UConn since 2008.

While Maryland looks really good, it’s still early, and there are things to improve. The press gave the Terps fits, and every program that has Frese’s team on the schedule took notice. The Terps still haven’t put together a full 40 minutes, and other teams will have better balance on offense to help dispel potential comebacks. It helped a lot that South Carolina went 1-of-21 on three-pointers, which can be huge shots that get the crowd back into the game. If the two teams meet again in March, the game will probably be much closer.

But the way Maryland’s started this year, it has an incredibly solid base to build upon. Charles has picked up where she left off last year. Watson looks almost back to normal only nine months after surgery. Jones continues to get better while still being a player that doesn’t make many mistakes. Add in a steady point guard in Channise Lewis, a good post presence in Brianna Fraser and two freshmen who play beyond their years in Shakira Austin and Taylor Mikesell, you have the ingredients for a potentially special group.

Championships aren’t won in November, but that doesn’t stop people from thinking about March only a few weeks into the season. However, it’s a critical time when teams realize just how good they can be. Maryland took a big step forward in that regard Sunday night.