In NCAA tournament opener, No. 3 seed Terps women handle Radford, advance to face UCLA

The shot was pure and the acknowledgment was immediate, delivered with a smile. As Taylor Mikesell backpedaled after a no-doubt-about-it 3-pointer late in the third quarter Saturday afternoon, Maryland women’s basketball coach Brenda Frese pointed at her star freshman guard, a grin as wide as the Terps’ lead over Radford.

The Big South champions had found their way to College Park for the first round of the NCAA tournament with defense, holding opponents to 55.2 points per game, 11th best in the country. But now there were still 11-plus minutes left in the game, and the third-seeded Terps had already cleared that threshold.

Maryland’s 73-51 win over the 14th-seeded Highlanders was by no means a shooting demonstration at Xfinity Center. There were free-throw trips squandered and bad passes aplenty. But it was a reassuring return to the court nearly two weeks after the Terps’ Big Ten tournament final loss to Iowa cost the team its chance to secure a No. 2 seed.

With Maryland’s 16th NCAA tournament win in as many first-round games under Frese, it advanced to face No. 6 seed UCLA, which held off No. 11 Tennessee, 89-77, in Saturday’s later matchup.

“Coach focuses on, reiterates staying and being present and focusing on one opponent at a time,” said junior wing Kaila Charles, who had 14 points on her 21st birthday. “So we have the [Big Ten] tournament — that's over. We can't get it back. So now we're looking forward to each game that we can get in the tournament. So today was Radford. Our focus was Radford. We weren't looking ahead. We're not looking behind. So that's what we do with our next game. Just be present and focus on what we can control.”

Mikesell led the Terps (29-4) with 16 points, including four 3-pointers. Her second trey was the 92nd of her freshman year, eclipsing Terps legend Kristi Toliver's single-season mark set in the 2008-09 season. Radford senior wing Destinee Walker, who had a team-high 15 points on 15 shots, joked afterward that when she saw Mikesell come off screens and rise to shoot Saturday, she said to herself, “Welp, all right. Let’s start jogging back to the side.”

With junior forward Stephanie Jones (12 points) and freshman forward Shakira Austin (11 points) helping the Terps to more than double the Highlanders’ points in the paint (40-18), the hosts shot 47 percent overall — well above the Highlanders defense’s season-long average of 33.9 percent.

Radford (26-7) entered the game having won 18 straight games, its last loss coming over two months ago, but little about the team’s mid-major dominance could prepare it for Maryland’s major size and length advantage. Highlanders coach Mike McGuire said the Terps “slowly wore us down.” Radford shot above 29 percent from the field in just one quarter, the third, and still ended with a minus-10 scoring margin.

The Terps’ 51 points allowed marked a 39-point improvement on their previous outing, a 90-76 conference championship game loss to the Hawkeyes on March 10. Of course, they didn’t have to worry about Megan Gustafson showing up Saturday, either.

“When you've got two weeks [to prepare], you have to figure out where you can put your focus,” Frese said. “We feel like in these games, in tournament play, coming down to possessions, that's where we've spent the last couple of weeks. It was great to able to see our defense leading into our transition game and really opening things up for us today.”

It was clear in the first quarter which program was making its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1996. Maryland led 16-2 midway through the quarter, taking care of the ball and selflessly sharing it.

The Terps assisted on their first 11 field goals, but their frequency dwindled after a torrid opening quarter. A 3-pointer by Walker trimmed Radford’s deficit to 24-20 five minutes before halftime.

Maryland, already up earlier than normal for an 11 a.m. tipoff, considered it a second wake-up call. A nine-point burst gave Maryland a comfortable 33-20 lead entering halftime, and a 10-2 run exiting it put the game away for good in a decisive third quarter.

After the final buzzer sounded, it was back to business in March Madness. Mikesell called the 3-point mark “an honor” but not a personal goal. Charles, who wore new gold shoes, said she “just wanted to shine a little bit.” In its locker room, the team watched the end of the Terps men’s NCAA tournament loss to LSU. As the Bruins pulled away from the Volunteers late, players and coaches looked on from courtside seats, studying what stood between them and the program’s second Sweet 16 in three years.

“You could tell they had laser focus today,” McGuire said of Maryland. “They were ready to get this tournament underway.”

jshaffer@baltsun.com

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