The top-seeded Maryland women's basketball team is heading back to the Final Four for the second straight season, courtesy of a 58-48 victory over No. 2 seed Tennessee on Monday night earned with defensive grit, clutch foul shooting and a redemptive performance from Lexie Brown.
The sophomore point guard scored 10 of fourth-ranked Maryland's final 14 points after getting just one point in the NCAA tournament's region semifinals. The Terps (34-2) held Tennessee (30-6) to one field goal over the final 5:19 and made seven of eight free throws in the final 40 seconds to earn a third trip to the national semifinals under coach Brenda Frese.
Maryland's 28th straight win to extend a program record came one year to the day after it dispatched the Lady Vols, 73-62, in last season's regional semifinals in Louisville, Ky.
This time, Maryland took the lead for good on Brown's 3-pointer with 4:29 left in regulation at Spokane Arena in front of an announced 5,032. Laurin Mincy followed by banking in a jumper, and Brown's acrobatic reverse layup provided the Terps with a 51-46 cushion with 1:17 to go.
“I needed just to bring my presence to the court this game,” Brown said. “They needed me to score in the second half, so I just took that upon myself, put the team on my back.”
Brown finished with 15 points, and center Brionna Jones (Aberdeen) had 14 points and nine rebounds. Spokane Region Most Outstanding Player Shatori Walker-Kimbrough scored 12 points, and Mincy completed Maryland starters in double figures with 10 points, seven rebounds and five assists.
The Terps made it a clean sweep of No. 1 seeds to advance to the Final Four in Tampa, Fla. Awaiting them is top-ranked Connecticut, the prohibitive favorite to win an NCAA-record 10th national championship. Notre Dame and South Carolina will meet in the other national semifinal Sunday night.
The teams came out of intermission much more crisply on offense after combining to miss 41 of 60 shots by halftime. The Lady Vols gained the first multiple-possession lead of the second half when Ariel Massengale made a 3-pointer before Cierra Burdick's layup for a 34-29 margin with 14:19 left in regulation.
Tennessee trapped Brown in the right corner moments later, and Frese called a timeout to prevent a five-second violation. Maryland came out of the stoppage energized behind Walker-Kimbrough's driving layup and her pull-up 3-pointer on a fast break that tied the game with 12:39 to play.
Brown's 3-pointer broke the 34-34 tie, and Jones added a layup for a 39-34 advantage. That's when the Lady Vols scored 10 of the next 12 points, including 3-pointers from Burdick and Massengale (game-high 16 points), to forge a 44-41 lead. The game was tied again when Brown used a pump fake to draw her defender into the air and dribbled to create space for an open 3-pointer, setting up the dramatic finish.
“They hit big baskets when they needed to,” Lady Vols coach Holly Warlick said. “That's what great guards do. I thought we did a great job at the beginning, but I think toward the end of the game, we were giving too many open looks, too many inside touches.”
With 6:09 left in the first half, Maryland claimed its first lead, 16-15, on a pair of free throws from Mincy as part of a 5-0 run. Jordan Reynolds connected on a jumper for the Lady Vols, but Mincy came right back with a pull-up jumper while being closely defended, and Jones scored off a pass from Brown for a 20-17 lead with 4:29 to play.
Maryland went into the locker room ahead, 22-21, courtesy of Brown's jumper that rattled around the rim and fell through four seconds before the halftime buzzer. It was the first field goal for Brown in nearly 60 minutes after the All-Big Ten first-team selection went 0-for-7 in the regional semifinals.
The Terps overcame Brown's struggles, though, to advance to their second straight regional final and third in four years thanks to a 65-55 victory over Duke on Saturday. Maryland made its third appearance in the round of eight over the past four years and sixth overall since Frese came to College Park in 2002-03 and won the national championship three seasons later.
“You know, it's still pretty surreal, just the fact that we're going to back-to-back Final Fours,” Frese said. “Couldn't be more proud of this team when you talk about going into this year and the expectations. They set the bar really high. Just really excited about going to Tampa.”