The No. 8 Maryland women's basketball team kept up with top-ranked Connecticut on Friday night, but for only so long.
After tying the game 43-43 with 18:50 left in the second half, Maryland all but ran out of steam against the defending national champion Huskies. The Terps would score only 12 points more, fading late in a 72-55 loss at Comcast Center.
UConn's Breanna Stewart led all scorers with 26 points on 9-for-16 shooting. Her all-around attack — three 3-pointers to go with six offensive rebounds — kept the Huskies (3-0) ahead for good.
"It's a missed opportunity for us," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. "I thought, in the second half, there were too many runs, too many missed box-out opportunities, and obviously we had no answer for Stewart."
All-American Alyssa Thomas had 20 points and 14 rebounds for Maryland, surpassing her 19 combined points in two double-digit losses to UConn last season. Rutan finished with three 3-pointers while freshman Lexie Brown added seven points in 26 minutes off the bench.
But Maryland finished with 14 turnovers against UConn's press defense; Thomas had a team-high six. On two occasions, she lost the ball to Huskies guard Moriah Jefferson before she could cross half-court.
The steals led to easy points, which the Terps could ill afford.
"I expected them to pressure me," Thomas said. "Of course you never want to turn the ball over, so you just go back and watch the film and try and get better."
Maryland outrebounded UConn in the first half 22-15, after saying earlier in the week that it would get after the boards more. That number flipped in the second half, with the Huskies finishing ahead 41-39.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma said rebounding was key after what he thought was a sloppy first half.
"Stewart had seven rebounds in the second half; she didn't have any in the first half," said Auriemma, who was playing without All-America forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis (nerve contusion) and forward Morgan Tuck (knee). "There were a lot more missed shots in the second half by both teams, but I think defensively we were just better."
The battle of star forwards — Maryland's Thomas against UConn's Stewart — began on the game's first possession. Thomas received a pass at the top of the key and converted a mid-range jumper for a 2-0 lead. Stewart responded with a 3-pointer, and Thomas promptly responded with one of her own.
"When my first jump shot goes, the basket looks like an ocean to me," Thomas said. "So that was definitely a great confidence builder to make that."
The coach on the other sideline noticed.
"Our goal was to let her get her 30 [points] in the first half and then see if we could shut her out in the second," Auriemma joked. "I don't know if one person can defend Alyssa Thomas."
The Maryland senior had a first-half double double (14 points and 10 rebounds). Stewart, meanwhile, shot 7-for-9 on her way to 19 points at intermission, when UConn had a 43-38 advantage.
That lead didn't come without controversy. UConn's Bria Hartley got off a desperation heave as the first-half clock wound down, and Brown was called for the shooting foul. Frese stomped her feet and complained to the officials as Hartley converted two of three from the free-throw line to end the half.
But in the end, Frese said her team's problems in the post led to the loss.
"I thought our bigs did a really nice job the first half," Frese said. "They were a little nonexistent for us in the second half. They got conservative and lost their confidence, but that's all things we can work on."
Note: Frese signed a contract extension that will keep her with the program through at least 2021, the school announced Friday. She could earn up to four additional years, through June 2025, with rollovers. Financial details of the extension weren't released.
twitter.com/nick4iezosCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun