Maryland women's basketball coach Brenda Frese along with players Brionna Jones and Destiny Slocum talk about the 87-81 loss to No. 1 UConn at Xfinity Center. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
The normalization of relations between the Maryland and Connecticut women's basketball teams happened in 2 minutes, 37 seconds Thursday night. The No. 4 Terps were close, and then, like that, they weren't. The Huskies' winning streak, now at 87 and a virtual lock to set an NCAA record, was in some peril, and then it was safe.
It was a light-speed takeover by a program that is light-years ahead of the rest: five shots, three 3-pointers, 14 straight points to start the third quarter, turning a five-point margin into the status quo, an eventual 87-81 win at Xfinity Center.
Maryland (12-1) hadn't won any of its previous five games against No. 1 UConn; hadn't come close, really. For the better part of an hour, most of an announced sellout crowd of 17,950 had hoped, not without reason, that the Terps might be the ones to knock off the sport's Goliath. But in about the time it takes to pop a bag of popcorn, UConn (12-0) deflated hopes of an upset and offered a bruising reminder of its primacy.
"I didn't think we handled coming out of halftime very well at all," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. "But big picture, it's Dec. 29. We learned a lot about our team today."
Huskies junior guard Kia Nurse and sophomore wing Katie Lou Samuelson, valiantly fighting through a stomach bug, finished with a combined 42 points, including 10 in the run that gave their team the cushion it would need later. It was Nurse's 3-pointer that made it 50-31 with 7:23 remaining in the third quarter, a rock-solid lead that slowly was chipped away at.
Maryland had brought its slingshot, to be sure, and, staring at an impossible deficit, the Terps started shooting.
"If you look too far ahead," Maryland freshman point guard Destiny Slocum said, "then you already lost."
A frantic 19-7 run cut UConn's lead to five midway through the fourth quarter, and the arena was soon a swirl of towels and pumping fists. When the Huskies called a timeout after their margin was trimmed to 10, the biggest-ever crowd for a Big Ten Conference team let its voice be heard.
For Slocum (team-high 23 points), the moment was never too big. On a court teeming with Associated Press All-Americans, the McDonald's All-American played like she didn't care that a national television audience was watching. She got into the lane at her convenience and hit half of her 10 3-pointers, some well beyond the arc.
"Everybody got to witness tonight what makes her so special," Frese said. "She just has it. She's poised beyond her years."
With senior guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough (10 points) struggling and senior center Brionna Jones (19 points, 13 rebounds) in some foul trouble, a youth movement headed by Slocum and freshman forward Kaila Charles (18 points) got the Terps to where they were last December against UConn.
At the Maggie Dixon Classic in New York, Maryland had edged as close as four in the final minute of a 10-point loss, tied for the Huskies' narrowest win all year. On Thursday, it was much the same: close late, but ultimately no better.
"We maybe won this game today because, in some ways, it's Connecticut, and they're used to making some of the plays that they made today," Huskies coach Geno Auriemma said. "When we needed a shot, we got one. When we needed a stop, we got one. When we needed a play to be made, we got one."
The game's start seemed to highlight the teams' gap in preparation, if not talent. The Huskies looked like the four-time defending national champions, a squad that had beaten five currently ranked teams this season, including preseason No. 1 Notre Dame. The Terps, with two top-25 wins, appeared happy just to be on the same court: UConn scored the first seven points and 10 of the final 12 in the first quarter to take a 20-12 lead.
The crowd, covered almost wall to wall in white "FreseFest" T-shirts, shared her frustration at the start. They booed with impunity at the assessment of dubious calls against Maryland, of which there were several. Their mood had changed by the time Walker-Kimbrough's long jumper midway through the second quarter brought the deficit to 22-21, and their glee could be heard from the Capital Beltway when Charles tied it at 27 minutes later.
Not that UConn was flustered. In a span of 38 seconds, the Huskies scored nine straight points. Only after Terps freshman guard Blair Watson stole an inbounds pass for a last-minute bucket to bring the Terps within five, 36-31, did the game feel like a top-five matchup once more. When the second half resumed, of course, that changed fast.
Before the season began, Frese had said that, with the departure of Huskies All-Americans Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck, it was exciting to at last enter a season "really not playing for second place." Auriemma himself has said he expects the team to lose at some point this season, though American Athletic Conference play is not likely to offer a true test.
Auriemma reiterated Thursday that he still believes defeat will come, that the 87th straight win was proof it is possible. Frese said it would have to be a group effort, though it was unclear whether she meant by the Terps or the sport's other not-good-enough challengers.
"We all have to find a way, right?" Frese said. "As they continue to keep playing, we all have to continue to get better in order for us to see that happen. … I'm excited about where we can grow from this game, and I know for us, we want another opportunity."