COLLEGE PARK – The second round of the NCAA Tournament is quickly becoming a thorn in the side of the Maryland women’s basketball team. The Terps have lost three of their last four second-round matchups, with the latest loss on March 25 against the sixth-seeded UCLA at the Xfinity Center.
Maybe it was the pressure of the national stage or UCLA’s dominance on the offensive boards, that resulted in the 85-80 final score that sent the Terps home. Maybe it was the career-high 30 points generated by Bruins forward Michaela Onyenwere, a 6-foot sophomore who refers to herself as “undersized for her position.”
Or maybe it was the fact that exactly 41 years ago to the day, UCLA won its only National Championship against none other than the Maryland Terrapins.
It didn’t matter which of these factors contributed to the loss, because the fact remained that it was the Bruins (22-12) who were celebrating midcourt instead of the 29-5 Terps. It’s the Bruins who are heading to their fourth straight Sweet 16 game to face Connecticut.
Even though UCLA led by as many as 8 points in the first half, the game still came down to the final seconds after a motivating halftime speech by Maryland Head Coach Brenda Frese inspired the Terps to enter the second half with renewed resolve.
Frese’s speech especially resonated with junior guard Kaila Charles, who had only scored one bucket in each of the two previous quarters. Charles unloaded 17 third-quarter points on the Bruins by generating turnovers and landing layups like clockwork.
In fact, Charles was the catalyst for Maryland’s five-point lead heading into the fourth quarter. The junior had just stolen another errant UCLA pass and had gone to the ground finishing a layup at the buzzer.
“Coach kept telling me in the first half ‘things are going to get going for you; just be positive and be optimistic.’ In the third quarter we came out very aggressive, and I think our defense really led to a lot of my points because we were getting a lot of stops,” said Charles. “We just had to be more aggressive from the tip and not settle.”
Despite the Terps’ leading the Big Ten in rebounds this season, the Bruins won that battle Monday night with plenty of second-chance shots, resulting from 27 total offensive rebounds. UCLA was also nearly perfect from the free-throw line, shooting 20-for-21, in stark contrast to Maryland’s 15-for-25.
“I think on the rebounding side we wanted it more and it showed on the court,” said UCLA senior guard Kennedy Burke. “And that was one of the keys to the game, and we executed that really well.”
“We have to be confident jump shooters, and the way that you’re a confident jump shooter is if you miss, you know someone’s got your back. We talk about getting 45 percent of our misses to get a second shot opportunity; that’s our standard,” said UCLA Head Coach Cori Close. “I don’t think you can underestimate the effort…they are relentless, out of area rebounds and those are all heart.”
Success from behind the arc also eluded the Terps; Maryland’s sole 3-point basket came courtesy of freshman guard Taylor Mikesell, who finished the year with 95 treys, a new program season record. Meanwhile, Onyenwere and UCLA junior guard Japreece Dean combined for six 3-point baskets.
The Terps endured foul trouble down the stretch as three players, including forward Stephanie Jones, finished with four fouls, and Charles wasn’t far behind with three.
Foul trouble prevented Jones from repeating her prolific first-quarter performance after she was called for her third penalty early in the second half.
The junior had registered 13 of her 15 points in the first seven minutes of the game; no other Terp had scored the first four minutes after tipoff.
“I was just being aggressive, and the guards did a great job of finding me down low,” said Jones. “I was just playing off of that and letting the game come to me.”
In the end, it came down to which team had the heart and the confidence to advance to the Sweet 16.
The Terps will be returning nine of their 10 current players and are planning on bringing in four more student-athletes.
“For them to accomplish what they were able to accomplish this year being short-handed and out-manned at times… to get 29 wins and to add four more players to the rotation, the competition is going to be plentiful,” said Frese, with a smile. “We’re going to utilize the experience factor of our vets; the future is extremely bright.”