Though Penn State tried to keep pace with the best team in the Big Ten Conference, it met the fate in the third quarter so many of its league counterparts are used to: down by 20 and counting, with no hope of recovery.
Another hapless victim in No. 8 Maryland’s conquering march to the Big Ten tournament.
The Terps captured the Big Ten regular-season crown all for themselves Saturday, burying the Nittany Lions, 88-61, before the first crowd of the season in their last hurrah in the Xfinity Center in 2021.
Since joining the Big Ten Conference for the 2014-15 season, Maryland has won the regular-season title every year but one. This is also its 23rd regular-season crown as a program.
Coach Brenda Frese said she knows her team is peaking at the right time as with the Big Ten tournament starting for the Terps on Thursday.
“Really, you look at these last 10 games, at the dominance — that’s what we’ve been preparing for, is March. This is the first goal of many,” she said.
The Terps (21-2, 17-1 Big Ten) cut down the net to celebrate the regular-season crown, something the program had never done before. Frese explained that there’s no promise to the future; last year’s NCAA tournament, after all, was canceled due to the pandemic.
It was only fitting each member climbed up to snip a piece for herself.
“It did hit differently. I think we all recognize the fact that we’re in a pandemic. There’s nothing guaranteed for tomorrow,” Frese said. “ … We don’t want to take anything for granted. We want to cherish this body of work our players and staff and everybody has put in.”
Maryland permitted a small group of players’ family to watch their Terps close a perfect 10-0 record on their home court.
“It was definitely special and very cool for our families to come see us play,” sophomore Ashley Owusu said.
Chloe Bibby scored a game-high 15 as four of Maryland’s five starters hit double figures. Freshman Angel Reese (St. Frances) scored 11 points off the bench in the Baltimore native’s fifth game back from a foot injury.
“It just goes to show all 11 of us can score at any willing time,” forward Mimi Collins said.
Owusu scored 12, below the 20-plus, 30-plus performances she’s put up in games this season. That’s far from a reason for Frese to be concerned.
“It show’s the balance,” Frese said. “[Ashley’s] our lead floor general. I think Ashley has a great pulse of she knows when she needs to take over in games that’re highly contested and when she needs to share the basketball.”
After a taste of jitters led to a brief Penn State advantage, Maryland ticked off some of its greatest hits quickly: running up a lopsided scoring streak (10-3) to a significant lead, a Katie Benzan 3-pointer, forcing its opponent into a shot-clock violation and multiple sloppy turnovers.
Caught up in Maryland’s choking defense, the Nittany Lions turned the ball over eight times in the first quarter alone, three times into Benzan’s hands and twice into Owusu’s.
Waldorf native Collins (12 points), ran a highlight reel of her own in front of the little hometown crowd, scoring 10 points by quarter’s end for a 27-15 lead.
Trying to outrun Maryland for fast break points failed Penn State, so a handful carved out footholds around the perimeter and laid in a couple 3-pointers. Buckets like that gave Penn State the juice to stay within 10 points.
Not that that lasted forever.
“We weren’t playing to our standard. Maybe the expectation, to have your family and friends in the stands for once live probably had an impression on us early,” Frese said. “Once we settled down, playing the way we know how to defend, the way we know how to move the basketball on the offensive end, I thought you saw terrific response in the third quarter.”
Still, the Nittany Lions lagged considerably by halftime, 44-32. Though the visitors hung on to the ball a little more in the second quarter, they’d still surrendered 12 turnovers in two quarters — compared to just six from Maryland.
It was a total that doubled by game’s end, as Penn State turned it over another 11 times.
It didn’t help that, even when they weren’t turning over the ball, Penn State went the next three minutes without a score. The Nittany Lions shot 20% (1-for-5) in the first third of the quarter, rarely giving themselves a second chance with two rebounds.
“We understood they were trying to get up the floor, so we were cutting off sideline and cutting off middle and getting a whole bunch of steals,” Collins said. “We were fixing our mistakes.”
The Terps, led by sophomore Diamond Miller (14 points), called the first minutes of the third quarter all their own. Miller jogged up the middle to cap the first of two double-digit unchallenged Terps runs that first sent the Nittany Lions to a timeout, down by 20.
By Penn State’s next timeout two minutes later, the Nittany Lions shuffled to their huddle buried under a nearly-30 point deficit.
Miller contributed the bulk of her afternoon performance with eight points in the third quarter, and the bench players then took over in the fourth quarter. Senior transfer Alaysia Styles matched her career single-game high (eight points).
“You have to be able to have different contributions,” Frese said, “just to be able to see the level we can play really hard and not take possessions off because we have depth coming off the bench.”