On a meaningful day at the Xfinity Center, No. 8 Maryland (26-3, 15-3 B1G) defeated Illinois (10-19, 2-16 B1G) 71-62 clinching the outright Big Ten regular season title. Clinching four titles in five years is no easy task, and certainly something head coach Brenda Frese doesn’t take for granted.
“Just all of the hard work that goes in behind the scenes and I can’t say enough between our staff and our players,” Frese said. “I’m most proud of the consistency factor, it’s not easy to do, it’s a long season.”
The Terps lone senior Brianna Fraser did not play due to an injury to her left ankle, but her teammates continued to bring Fraser’s energy and passion. The Illini battled hard throughout, but the Terps 11-2 run to close out the third quarter proved to be too much.
“Just continue to love to be able to see this team be able to find a way, sometimes when we don’t play our best,” Frese said. “I think you can see how much this team loves each other, how much they care for Bri and how they wanted to win this game for her.”
Strong perimeter shooting was key for Maryland, shooting 47 percent from behind the arc with Blair Watson and Taylor Mikesell each knocking down four threes respectively. Watson and Mikesell converted on their open opportunities in similar fashion, curling around a teammate’s screen to generate the open opportunity.
The first half was a struggle for Maryland on offense, shooting 38 percent from the field, however, the Terps played strong defense holding the Illini to 37.5 percent from the field. Maryland asserted themselves inside early on, with several offensive rebounds in the first few possessions, creating second opportunities.
Overall in the first half, the Terps out-rebounded the Illini 27-19. Shakira Austin and Stephanie Jones both played tough inside, making it difficult for Illinois to covert, a trend that has continued throughout conference play this season.
“The physicality changed at the beginning of conference play, it just took a lot of growth for me,” Austin said. “My teammates they told me to keep attacking and to keep your confidence up.”
However, the biggest difference in the first half for Maryland was itsability to convert on transition opportunities with 13 fast break points, compared to none for the Illini. Sophomore guard Channise Lewis stole several cross court passes, jumping the passing line and finishing in transition with ease.
Battling back and forth to start the second half, Illinois cut the Maryland lead to just 43-42 with 4:10 remaining in the third quarter. The Illini leader Alex Wittinger started to catch fire, before Blair Watson and Austin made timely baskets down the stretch of the third quarter. Austin used her combination of strength and finesse inside, knocking down the basket plus the foul. Soon after, Watson knocked down a three wrapping around the screen once again giving Maryland the 54-44 advantage.
“I think Blair and Taylor’s threes gave us some momentum, I thought we stopped trading baskets and started getting stops defensively,” Frese said.
After picking up the defensive intensity to close out the third quarter, the Terps maintained their defensive pressure to start the final quarter. Illinois scored only two field goals in the first five minutes, struggling with the Terps length and quick defensive rotations.
In addition to stifling defense, timely baskets from Jones allowed Maryland to maintain its 10 point lead. Jones finished with 14 points and 9 rebounds overall, continuing her strong play inside and helping lessen the loss of Fraser’s absence.
“The joy that [Brianna] plays with everyday, she hypes us all up and brings so much energy to our team,” Jones said. “Even when she’s out now she’s still talking to us, being a great leader.”
Maryland’s victory will secure them the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, allowing the crucial double bye providing more potential recovery time for Fraser and the rest of the Terps.
“It feels great especially to be able to be a sole champion after coming up short last year,” Jones said.
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