With just one game to play before turning its attention to the Big Ten tournament and beyond, the Maryland women’s basketball team has just one box left to check.
The Big Ten crown.
The No. 7 Terrapins made sure that option remained very much on the table with an 88-45 blowout victory over Purdue on Senior Night, notching their 13th straight win and capping a 9-0 record at home.
Since the streak began, Maryland (24-4, 15-2) has averaged at least a 24-point margin of victory, and Tuesday night was no different — the 43-point rout was the program’s biggest gap since Feb. of 2017, against Wisconsin.
The Boilermakers’ 45 points were the least amount of scoring the Terps have allowed since 2018, when they limited Wisconsin to 44. Much of that had to do with the defense, led by senior Blair Watson, which prevented all but 19 of Purdue’s 61 shots, including just 3 of 20 attempts from 3-point range.
“I love defense. When our team has really good defense, I’m super excited. We need that going into March for sure,” Watson said. “We have a lot of teams that we’re going to face that are a lot bigger, badder and a lot more hard competition. But I think the way that we’re going, the way that we’re trending, you should be nervous.”
However, with Northwestern’s triumph over Ohio State earlier in the evening, the two schools remained tied for the top spot in the Big Ten standings. The Wildcats face Illinois (2-14 in conference) this Sunday, while Maryland visits Minnesota (5-11). If both teams win, they’ll each earn a share of the Big Ten regular season crown.
Ever since Maryland’s 93-59 drubbing of Iowa earlier in the month, head coach Brenda Frese has witnessed a group of players completely in control, which is all she had asked of them. She sees a team that has bought in, whether games or practices, offense or defense, prepared to earn a spot as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, which, at this moment, is a likely possibility.
“It’s going to be a really tough game to go into Minnesota, but we’re ready for the challenge. We’re excited to be in this position," Frese said. “We’ll worry about that game first. Obviously, our seniors lead the way and guide the underclassmen on what it takes to play three games in three days.”
On a night that began with crossing the Xfinity Center floor to receive her “Senior Night” honors, forward Stephanie Jones (Aberdeen) threw a match onto gasoline — netting 18 points and nine rebounds.
“We always call it ‘Mean Steph,’ " Frese said. "She’s so mild-mannered and happy and positive, but when you get that aggression from her, the physicality, she’s playing with a strong purpose. She wants to take this thing as far as she can, and it makes us a better team.”
Senior Kaila Charles notched a double double with 14 points and 11 boards, as did sophomore Shakira Austin (17 points, 13 rebounds).
“I appreciate everything about this class,” Frese said. “They’ve worked hard through injuries and adversity, always stepped up to accept responsibility. You see their leadership every single day.”
The squad that populated Maryland’s court for the first six minutes of the first quarter seemed almost unrecognizable from the Maryland team that had won 12 straight games. Purdue (17-12) led Maryland for nearly seven minutes, in which the impact of every home basket became immediately rendered ineffective by a Boilermakers response. Jones’ two baskets weren’t enough to stem the flow of good Purdue shots.
That is, until freshman guard Diamond Miller stepped onto the floor.
Miller wove through a thicket of Purdue defense to flip in a backdoor layup for her appetizer. Then, after Austin slipped Jones the first go-ahead Maryland basket of the night, Miller kicked up dust between the Terps and Boilermakers with an assist on Austin’s layup and then one of her own, handing Maryland a 17-12 advantage.
Miller would go on to net 12 of 37 points Maryland’s bench players racked up, which assures Frese, to see her non-starters peaking together right before March.
“We were waiting for the game to slow down for Diamond," Frese said. "She just had to get comfortable. We’ve had a lot of success in the Big Ten Tournament; if you want to be there on the last day standing on that podium, it takes an entire team.”
To Purdue coach Sharon Versyp, Miller’s spark was exemplary of exactly what allowed Maryland to stomp through the Big Ten in the last month and a half.
“No matter who comes in, they’re a weapon, on defense and on offense,” Versyp said.
That wouldn’t be the end of Miller’s footprint on Maryland’s offense, but in the second quarter, the freshman handed the mic to a senior.
Twenty seconds into the second quarter, Jones had six points. Less than a minute later, she’d have 12.
The senior moved like oil in water in the paint, almost a completely separate entity from the Purdue defenders that could not slow her down. Jones collected Charles’ jumper and knocked it down to start the spurt, converted a quick lateral under pressure from freshman Ashley Owusu for another two and met Charles again under the net for her sixth straight point.
And when Purdue bit back with a 3-pointer to shave Maryland’s lead back to single digits, the Terps turned to their perimeter stalwart, Taylor Mikesell, to hit back by launching a triple of her own.
“I love that you can challenge this team, and they can respond,” Frese said.
Though Purdue picked Maryland ball-handlers six times in the first half, the Boilermakers just couldn’t capitalize, only managing nine points off turnovers.
For that kind of production, that was Owusu’s domain.
The freshman stripped a Boilermaker three times in the second quarter, first assisting on Miller’s basket and then fighting through a swathe of Purdue defense for her own jumper. The four points Owusu generated off her lifted goods were just the tip of the Terps’ points scored off turnovers, of which they posted 18 by halftime.
“With the way we want to play defensively, it takes great effort and energy and so Blair needs a blow, we need to be able to sub and have that kind of rotation we’re having off the bench,” Frese said. “Then we can play our defense as aggressively and as hard as we want to play when everything’s clicking with all nine players.”
Even though Purdue couldn’t harvest much off of its hosts’ turnovers, Maryland decided it ought to nip those in the bud nonetheless.
In the first half, the Terps turned over the ball 12 times. In the second, they’d allow just three.
“In the first half, we had way too many turnovers," Frese said. "You can’t have 12 turnovers ... if you want to make a run late in March, if you want to win the Big Ten Tournament. I liked our response out of it. It’s just keeping ourselves locked in what we need to do, playing the way we know we need to play.”
With a lead hovering around 25 points throughout the third quarter, there wasn’t much Maryland needed to do but avoid getting complacent.
Austin took that philosophy to heart, scoring six points in the first few minutes of the quarter, with Jones adding four and Mikesell hitting another 3 that pushed the lead to 25.
Maryland, which entered the game shooting 36.2% from beyond the arc this season on an average of 6.5 attempts per game, raised the bar Tuesday night.
And when Purdue guard Klarissa McLaughlin hit her 3-pointer, Miller brushed it off, scooped up the rebound, hustled to the arc and fired one, too.
Then, as the Boilermakers hurried down the court, Miller hunted them, flying in with a crowd-pleasing block to shut any kind of response down.
But this was still Senior Night, after all, and very quickly after jogging off the bench, Vujacic wanted to contribute, too.
After all, her parents had made the trip from Slovenia for the first time to be with their daughter.
“It was really special to me, just to have them by my side,” Vujacic said.
To start it off, the senior guard streamed down the court, nestled herself in the corner and buried her 3-point shot.
Then Miller, taking after the senior, did the same, from dead-center of the arc, just minutes before another senior, Watson, hit her own 3.
All in all, the Terps shot 7-for-17 from 3-point range.
But with Maryland up by almost 40 with still seven minutes to play in the fourth quarter, Vujacic began to have a little fun with it.
The senior swarmed McLaughlin and stripped her, bolted towards the net and drew a foul on her basket.