As she headed for the exits one final time this March, Brenda Frese looked up. The Maryland women’s basketball coach waved to the fans on her left and her right inside Xfinity Center, an acknowledgment of their support as much as a goodbye. The gesture had a familiar heartbreak Monday night.
Three years earlier, Frese had walked off the Xfinity Center court in defeat, stunned in the second round of the NCAA tournament by a Pac-12 team that cared not for the Terps’ higher seed or the thousands of fans who expected a fifth straight trip to March Madness’ second weekend.
Monday offered little comfort for much of the announced 3,941 in attendance. The scoreboard read UCLA 85, Maryland 80 as the sixth-seeded Bruins celebrated on the Terps’ center-court logo. This Maryland team was a only a No. 3 seed, not the No. 2 seed it had been when seventh-seeded (and Final Four-bound) Washington stunned the Terps in 2016. That did not lessen the pain of an increasingly familiar exit.
For the third time in four years, Maryland’s season ended in the second round. The Terps (29-5) have been to the Sweet 16 just once since 2015. Over 2,500 miles from home, on the home court of the Big Ten’s regular-season champion, UCLA (22-12) advanced to face No. 2 seed Connecticut in the Sweet 16 in Albany, N.Y., on Friday.
“I don't think our goals ever change,” Frese said. “We're always trying to win championships. … I can evaluate this team and what they were able to accomplish this season as something that we can never take away from them. They've done some tremendous things, but our goals will always be high here at Maryland.”
Junior wing Kaila Charles led Maryland with 23 points, but finished with 20 shots. A valiant effort from Maryland's frontcourt — forwards Stephanie Jones (Aberdeen) and Shakira Austin combined for 30 points — was not enough.
The Terps’ culprit was familiar. Two of Maryland’s losses this season had come at the hands of Iowa and Megan Gustafson, a skilled center who seemed able to get off any shot she wanted in the paint. On Monday, the undersized but overpowering Michaela Onyenwere finished with a game-high 30 points on 12-for-23 shooting, shooting confidently from outside and finishing with six offensive rebounds inside.
The Terps knew the problems UCLA posed on the glass. That made it no easier for Maryland, a statistically superior rebounding team, to stop. The Bruins entered the game No. 3 nationally in offensive rebounding, with nearly 17 per game. They finished with 27.
A three-possession stretch in the fourth quarter seemed to tilt the game. With Jones sidelined with four fouls, Bruins wing Kennedy Burke (19 points, 11 rebounds) grabbed a rebound and converted a put-back to tie the game at 76. After an empty Maryland possession, UCLA pumped the ball up the floor. Wing Lindsey Corsaro pump-faked from deep, sending Austin flying, and drove baseline. Junior forward Brianna Fraser was late on the rotation, Corsaro absorbed the contact, hit the layup and gave the Bruins a 79-76 lead at the foul line.
Maryland cut the lead to one but could not overcome the late deficit. Jones missed a long jumper late in the shot clock, and after a rebound bounced Maryland’s way, freshman guard Taylor Mikesell (5-for-13 overall, 1-for-6 from deep) missed a corner 3-pointer. Burke hit a jumper to extend the lead to three, and Charles made just one of two at the free-throw line with 40 seconds remaining.
Maryland didn’t intend to foul on the next possession, but junior wing Blair Watson was called for one anyway. Bruins guard Japreece Dean hit two free throws for an 83-79 lead. UCLA finished 20-for-21 overall from the line, another reminder of the Terps’ wastefulness; Maryland was 15-for-25.
“I think it just comes down to, they wanted it more,” Jones said. “And I think that showed. I mean, they just got more [rebounds] than us. We didn't do our job with boxing them out.”
The game was helter-skelter from the start, but the Bruins played at a speed different from the Big Ten’s usual fare. It took UCLA just 3:23 to outdo Radford’s nine-point first-quarter output in the Terps’ NCAA tournament opener. The Bruins had more points in the first 10 minutes (26) than the Highlanders had in the first 20 minutes (20) two days earlier.
Jones was not the problem. The junior forward had the first seven and 13 of the Terps’ first 16 points overall. It helped that she couldn’t miss: Jones was 7-for-7 in the first half. Her one misfire from the field in that period didn’t count; she’d been fouled.
But the Terps did little else to help themselves. Jones missed the two subsequent free throws and attempted just one shot in the second half. That was a theme in the early going: When Maryland missed — which wasn’t often, as the team shot 50 percent from the field in the first half and 47.1 percent overall — it was an opportunity squandered. When UCLA missed, it was an opportunity for a second, or third, or fourth chance at points.
The Bruins finished the first half with 17 offensive rebounds and 17 second-chance points; the Terps had just 18 rebounds total. One telling possession came right after Maryland had narrowed UCLA’s lead to 30-28. In a span of seconds, Onyenwere missed three shots close to the rim. She got every rebound anyway. Finally, on her fourth go at it, the sophomore stepped outside for a corner 3-pointer.
The Bruins extended their lead to eight less than two minutes later, and the Terps were perhaps fortunate to enter halftime down just four, 44-40. A rally early in the second half stemmed the tide, but Maryland’s finish was a reminder of how far it still must go, of the lofty standards it could not yet reach.
“We have nine of us coming back next year,” said Charles, who will be joined by one of the nation’s top recruiting classes. “We're going to use this as motivation in the postseason to get better.”
After another early exit, that was all they could do.