COLLEGE PARK — The Maryland women’s basketball team began the game with a thud, trailed by 16 points in the third quarter and appeared well on its way to falling out of first place in the Big Ten.
An unfathomable comeback ensued, and by the end of the night coach Brenda Frese found herself talking about “an incredible, special win.”
Kaila Charles made a buzzer-beating layup to cap a sensational fourth quarter by No. 8 Maryland, which never led until that final basket sealed a 71-69 victory over Minnesota on Thursday night.
“Just loved the way that we had to fight and claw and scratch,” Frese said. “It speaks volumes to the character and the competitiveness that we have in this locker room.”
The Terps trailed 54-38 in the third quarter, by 11 with 8:59 remaining and 69-62 with 50 seconds left before closing with a 9-0 run against the stunned Golden Gophers.
Maryland (24-3, 13-3) gained sole possession of first place in the conference, breaking a tie with Iowa, which lost at Indiana.
It was a gratifying end to an evening that began with Maryland falling behind 15-7 at the outset and 45-36 at halftime.
“You couldn't ask for more of an uncharacteristic night from us,” Frese said. “A lot of missed layups and turnovers and defensive breakdowns, especially in the first half.”
Down 59-48 entering the fourth quarter, the Terps outscored Minnesota 23-10 over the final 10 minutes, forcing seven turnovers without committing one.
“Not our best, but give them credit,” Minnesota first-year coach Lindsay Whalen said. “We put them in some tough spots. We guarded well until the fourth.”
Charles finished with a season-high 29 points, including the game-tying layup with 6.6 seconds left. After Minnesota got the ball past midcourt and called a timeout, Shakira Austin deflected the inbounds pass to Charles, who drove the length of the floor for the game-winning basket.
Destiny Pitts scored 24 and Kenisha Bell added 23 for the Golden Gophers (19-8, 8-8), whose six-game winning streak ended. Pitts, a sophomore guard, has scored at least 21 in four straight games. But she fouled out in the final minute, and Minnesota couldn't survive without her.
“We needed to stay poised,” Bell said. “We didn't stay poised in the last minute, and it cost us the game.”
After Pitts picked up her fourth foul with 7:09 remaining, Taylor Mikesell hit successive 3-pointers in a 10-4 surge for Maryland that made it 65-60. Charles then stole the ball, but blew a layup and Pitts made a reverse layup.
Charles made amends for the miss down the stretch.
Maryland played most of the game without senior forward Brianna Fraser, who fell to the floor under the basket with three minutes left in the first quarter. She watched the final three quarters from the end of bench with a pair of crutches and a bag of ice on her left ankle.
It was determined to be sprained, and she's day-to-day.
Fraser has played in all 27 games this season, starting twice, and ranks fifth on the team in scoring.
Whalen played for Frese in 2001-02 at Minnesota. After the Golden Gophers went 22-8 that season and Whalen was named Big Ten Player of the Year, Frese left for Maryland.
“That's a tough way to lose when you're going against your former coach,” Frese said.
Minnesota: Despite the loss, the Golden Gophers showed plenty of spirit on the road against a Top 10 team. They didn't win, but this team has clearly benefited from playing for Whalen.
Maryland: The Terps appear to have hit a lull, but they're in first place and this victory clinched a double bye in the Big Ten Tournament.
Minnesota: At Rutgers next Thursday, a rematch of a game won by the Gophers 60-46 on Feb. 3.
Maryland: At Purdue on Monday. The Boilermakers are 13-3 at home.