COLLEGE PARK — Maryland center Brionna Jones could only giggle at the comparison.
"Like PT boats attacking a battleship," New Mexico State coach Mark Trakh said in describing the destruction the 6-foot-3 Jones inflicted on his shorter, slighter players as top-seeded Maryland won its NCAA tournament opener Saturday.
All season, the Terps have won by continually switching guises. As if to prove that versatility, they beat New Mexico State with a bruising inside attack in the first half and a barrage of jumpers in the second.
It added up to a 75-57 victory over the hard-nosed Aggies, who tried their best to harass Maryland (31-2) out of its usual patterns. A No. 16 seed has beaten a No. 1 just once in the women’s Division I tournament, and Maryland never seemed in real danger of making the kind of history it didn’t want.
Jones led the Terps with 22 points and 12 rebounds while senior guard Laurin Mincy, playing the penultimate home game of her career, chipped in 19 points.
“Bri established herself early inside, so in the second half, they were doubling her and she was able to get us open shots,” Mincy said.
Trakh couldn’t stop gushing about Jones.
“She’s a great player. She’s got great touch around the basket,” he said. “Our players were trying to get around her, but it was like it took three seconds to get from one side of her to the other. She’s so fundamentally sound and well-coached that she knows how to seal, she knows how to use her body and she knows how to finish around the basket. We haven’t seen a big kid like that all year.”
With the victory, Maryland set up an intriguing second-round showdown with 31-0 Princeton. The Tigers became national darlings when they received a No. 8 seed despite entering the tournament as the only undefeated team in the country.
Their status as America’s team was only burnished when President Barack Obama showed up Saturday morning to cheer on Princeton in its 80-70 victory over Wisconsin-Green Bay. Obama’s niece, Leslie Robinson, is a freshman reserve for Princeton, and first lady Michelle Obama is a Princeton alum.
The Tigers, ranked No. 13 in both the Associated Press and USA Today coaches polls, seemed eager for a matchup with top-seeded Maryland, the kind of elite team they simply did not face during the regular season. If they upset the Terps, they’ll prove how underestimated they were by the selection committee.
“It’s a really great opportunity,” said Princeton captain Blake Dietrick.
Trakh said his team hadn’t faced inside players the caliber of Maryland’s Jones or Malina Howard, and the size mismatch was obvious from early in the game. New Mexico State’s defenders could neither deny Jones position near the basket nor bother her shots.
“Early on, after figuring out that I could feel their zone pretty well, and my teammates were giving me the ball … that’s when I knew I was going to have that type of game today,” she said.
Jones, an Aberdeen High School product, was the dominant factor as Maryland built a 42-32 lead by halftime. “She’s a really high-IQ kid that understands the mismatch,” Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. “And I thought our guards did a tremendous job of getting her the ball today.”
Frese said coming in she was most concerned about the Aggies’ knack for forcing mistakes with shifting defenses. And Maryland’s ballhandlers did struggle, coughing up 20 turnovers.
“Not the most complete 40-minute game we’ve been able to play,” Frese said. “We had anxiety today. … Sometimes when you want something so badly, it’s not going to work for you. You have to get back your balance.”
Sophomore point guard Lexie Brown suffered through a particularly difficult game, making just two of seven shots and committing six turnovers.
Maryland will strive to play a cleaner game Monday evening against a Princeton team that brings more inside muscle and greater shooting efficiency than New Mexico State. Frese said her team won’t be able to afford 20 turnovers
“We need to come out with way more energy, way more intensity,” Mincy said. “We know if we come out that way against Princeton, we’re going to be in for a long night.”
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