Her towering frontline had been cut down to size by a stronger, scrappier Notre Dame team Tuesday night, but that wasn't the real problem facing Brenda Frese.
The latest and ultimately greatest obstacle inside PNC Arena for the Terps in their 80-49 loss was very much an old one. As it authored another chapter in Maryland's decidedly undistinguished defensive history, Notre Dame turned a regional final showdown into a glorified layup line, with unimpeded trips to the rim coming almost as easy as its path to a second straight Final Four.
"I thought we were a step slow all night," Frese said after her team's worst loss of the season, and first by a double-digit margin. "I thought we did a lot more watching than we typically do."
Defense had never been the high-flying Terps' forte this season, a fact that came into focus long before their season ended Tuesday night. Of the eight teams in this NCAA tournament's regional finals, only Maryland (60.9 points per game) did not rank among the nation's top 150 scoring defenses. A fourth-ranked scoring offense and dominant inside game were all Frese had needed to take the Terps to their first Elite Eight since 2009.
That's where they met an opponent that could put up points as well as it stopped them. The only team nationally to rank in the top five in scoring offense (79.2 points per game) and scoring defense (51.5 points per game), Notre Dame showed Maryland again and again just what it was missing. The demonstration wasn't pretty.
"I thought it was going to be a close game, back and forth," Notre Dame coach Muffett McGraw said Tuesday. "I thought at the end, our leadership and experience would give us the edge. I thought we might get 10 points ahead. I did not envision this."
"We wanted to let them know why we're a No. 1 seed," guard Skylar Diggins said. "We're a No. 1 seed for a reason, and we came out and dominated."
The offseason question sure to follow the Terps, who lose only one starter to graduation this year, is as simple as it is difficult: Can they now become what Notre Dame is defensively? Forward Alyssa Thomas is one of the country's most athletically gifted players. Post presences Tianna Hawkins and Alicia DeVaughn aren't far behind in eye-popping measurables. Guard Laurin Mincy started the year by helping hold Georgetown star Sugar Rodgers to one basket in a blowout win.
All will be a year older, a season wiser, an offseason stronger and quicker. Will that be enough for Maryland, which has finished above sixth in the ACC in scoring defense just once since its 2006 national-championship season?
Said guard Kim Rodgers, one of three graduating seniors: "We're leaving a lot of good things for the underclassmen to move forward with next year."
But if this season's defense is among them, next year might not end much differently than what happened in Raleigh, N.C., on Tuesday night.
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