The fifth ranked Terrapins gave the top ranked Huskies their most competitive game in the last two seasons, still it wasn’t enough as Connecticut pulled away late to remain undefeated. This was easily the best game of the young college season with two Final Four participants from last year’s tournament going head to head. It was fitting that a heavyweight bout as such was played in Madison Square Garden and the atmosphere was that of a Championship game setting. Maryland did a great job of pushing the reigning champs, but that championship pedigree was on display down the stretch and Uconn got the hard earned 83-73 victory.
“I love the confidence and the swagger that we played with. There was no fear and I thought we competed really, really hard for 40 minutes.” – Brenda Frese, Maryland Head Coach
The Huskies “Big 3” of Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson (17 points, 6 assists) and Morgan Tuck (17 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists) carried the majority of the load offensively for Uconn. Still, several others stepped up to make big contributions, maybe none bigger than Saniya Chong’s dagger from the corner with under a minute left. Her triple pushed the four point lead back up to seven and Maryland had to play the foul game. The ensuing free throws creating that 10 point margin of victory. Stewart displayed a full floor game finishing with a line of 23 points, 7 assists, 6 rebounds, 2 blocks.
Maryland’s Brionna Jones was amazing from start to finish, her size advantage allowed her to give the Huskies problems. She routinely scored inside against single coverage, the Terps would often go to her whenever they got a bit off of their gameplan or to stop a Uconn run. Who knows how the Terps would of fared without her 24 points on 12-of-14 shooting, she was their rock on the offensive end. Shatori Walker-Kimbrough (14 points, 5 assists) didn’t play bad, but it was clear that the Huskies made her a focal point in their defensive game plan. Their mission was to limit her ability to drive and attack their defense by putting the extremely quick Jefferson on her on the perimeter and sending help if she did catch it in the low post. Kristen Confroy (12 points) was the unsung hero in this one, if weren’t for her sharp shooting the Terps may have got left behind. All 12 of her points came from behind the arc and they were all run killers or run cappers for Maryland. Tierny Pfirman (7 points) also hit a couple of big shots late for her team late in the game.
The Terps got off to a great start in regards to setting the tempo of the game, much of the first half was played at their pace. They used their size and athleticism on the defensive end to speed the Huskies up and disrupt the timing of their offense. There were several instances in which they were just bigger and more physical, forcing a few three second calls when Connecticut players got trapped in the paint and couldn’t create space to make a move. Maryland forced 13 turnovers and got out and ran a little bit with SWK getting a couple of easy lay-ins via transition.
As the first half drew near a close, it was evident that the best team on the floor was in fact the Maryland Terrapins. Then, it happened. The Huskies made a quick run that negated much of the positive that Maryland had created. In a sequence, Stewart (Stewie) hit a three from the wing, Jefferson got a steal and hit a pull-up jumper from the foul line and the Huskies ended the half with a 36-32 lead after being thoroughly outplayed by the Terps.
“Tonight there were two really good teams on the floor” – Geno Auriemma, Uconn Head Coach
The third period started out bad for Maryland as Uconn forced a 3-second violation, the champs appeared to start pulling away. Maryland would have none of it, an emphatic chase down block by SWK after a turnover reenergized the Terps and they made a run. Freshman Brianna Fraser a New York native, scored a basket inside while getting fouled. It got the Maryland fans in the Garden going and the confidence seemed to ooze out of the Terps. She hit the free throw to complete the and-one opportunity, giving Maryland a one point lead. The champs responded immediately, Stewie got a block on Maryland’s Brene Moseley which resulted in a Katie Lou Samuelson triple. Stewie scored again and Uconn went back up by five, soon that lead turned to seven. In true Geno fashion, he called a 30-second timeout with 13.2 seconds left in the period. Moriah Jefferson would attack the basket and hit an off balance layup with her left hand, when asked if it was a “euro-step” move after the game, she laughed and said “I just tried to get it up there, they had all that size in there.” The highlight worthy layup would give the champs a nine point lead heading into the final stanza.
Aurriema stated in his post game presser that he felt this Maryland team “was more balanced” than the one his team faced in last year’s Final Four. That was evident as the Terps just refused to go away. Uconn had them on the ropes for a couple minutes to start the quarter, but as they did all night, Maryland continued to respond.
Brionna Jones was the catalyst early on, SWK showed her grit and leadership on one sequence where a teammate missed a free throw but she crashed the offensive boards and drew a foul. Missed opportunities from the charity stripe would haunt the Terps, with 4:46 left in the contest Maryland had cut the 10-point deficit to five. SWK would channel her inner Andre Drummond with a monster baseline swat of a Uconn guard, the Detroit Pistons center was sitting courtside. It appeared that Maryland was regaining control of the tempo and they were going to complete their rally.
Stewie. That’s what happened to Maryland’s rally attempt, the All-American had let the game come to her, not forcing much at all if ever. Late in the game she reminded everyone why she’s the best player in the country. She hit a tough fall-away on the baseline, Jones would respond for the Terps, but Stewie started getting good position inside and getting easy layups. The hi-lo between Stewie and Tuck has “been a staple” according to Stewart and Uconn certainly went to it down the stretch as often as they could. Pfirman would respond with her only triple of the night, a highly contested look from the top of the arc and she drilled it. That cut the Uconn lead to just four. That’s when Chong delivered the dagger, Uconn had been living inside during that stretch with Stewie and Tuck, the Terps sent help and the Huskies swung the ball and Chong was wide open in the corner and she knocked down the shot that pretty much ended the game. The Garden erupted as her shot dropped as it’s essentially a Uconn home game, even though the Terrapins supporters traveled well.
The Terrapins had 22 turnovers to the Huskies 14, after 13 first half turnovers the Huskies committed just one in the entire second half. Maryland shot just three of eight from the charity stripe, they’re typically far better in that area.
Maryland is on the road on Thursday to open Conference play against Illinois before taking on Ohio State on Saturday at the XL Center. The Huskies take on the Bearcats tomorrow night.