COLLEGE PARK, Md. --The Comcast Center held a pair of first-round NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament match-ups Sunday between two major-conference at-large bids and their spunky, mid-major counterparts who were jubilated to win their respective conference tournaments and make it to the dance. In the first contest, the fifth-seeded Black Knights of Army fought toe-to-toe with host Maryland until a crucial juncture midway throughout the first half spurred the Lady Terrapins, led by their senior forward Alyssa Thomas, to a stretch of near-perfect basketball led by their senior forward Alyssa Thomas. The Terps finished their day with a comfortable 90-52 victory in their home stadium at College Park, while Thomas' performance made her the school's all-time career-points recordholder for players of either gender. The loss put an end to the phenomenal career of Black Knight guard Jen Hazlett, who embraced her coach with tearful eyes in the waning moments of what became a blowout defeat.
On the other side of the bracket, the Texas Longhorns, a five-seed, were able to conquer a fiesty twelfth-seeded University of Pennsylvania Quakers after storming back from a seven-point halftime deficit, eventually righting the ship and claiming a 79-61 victory in their fourth consecutive NCAA berth.
The Horns will face the Terps in the second round at 7:05 p.m. EDT Wednesday, back at Comcast, with the team who survives beyond Tuesday night heading to the Louisville Regional next weekend to face the winner of Monday night's second-round duel between Tennessee and St. John’s in Knoxville.
LOUISVILLE REGIONAL - COLLEGE PARK, MD. POD (COMCAST CENTER, UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND)
Round One: Sunday March 23
Game One: (4) Maryland 90, (13) Army 52
Over the course of the season, the Terps have faced some of the toughest teams in the country, including both of this year's undefeated NCAA Tournament top seeds, UConn and Notre Dame. Maryland lost to North Carolina in the first -- and last (the Terrapins move to the Big 10 next year) -- ACC Tournament match-up between the two earlier this month, leaving them somewhat demoralized and in a daze while they attempted to regroup after an absolutely brutal conference schedule and a nearly as tough preconference slate.
If they thought they would get to take a breather while gliding through an opening major against the automatic bid from a mid-major conference, they were about to find out they were woefully mistaken. True, Army was a 13-seed, there in College Park as the tournament champion and automatic representative of the Patriot League. But cadets of West Point would quickly prove they were there to fight, not just to go through the motions.
After an early exchange of buckets, the Black Knights held a three-point lead just outside the nine-minute mark, on back-to-back treys by Army's Jean Parker and sophomore stud Kelsey Minato, putting Army up 18-15,and everyone in Comcast knew they were in for a game, not a walk-ver.
Still, this is not Maryland coach Brenda Frese’s first rodeo, but her tenth tournament appearance at Maryland since her initial season in 2002. Every one of her players came ready to play, not just the starters. The Terrapins quickly ralied, and over the remainder of the half, the Black Knights would be outscored 29-2.
In what became a two-on-five war of attrition in favor of the Lady Terrapins, Jen Hazlett and sophomore stud Kelsey Minato combined to hit six of the Knights’ seven field goals, as the Black Knights struggled valiantly not to allow themselves to submerge in the quagmire that was the Maryland defense. What seemed at first like a competitive rendition of tug-of-war quickly spun violently out of control for the cadets. The post players for Army just could not get in position to make a play off the glass.
Both Alyssa Thomas and Tierney Pfirman played seriously gritty basketball, with Thomas shooting her way to a new scoring record and Pfirman gobbling up rebounds through sheer willpower. By the end of the first half, Maryland's hard-nosed attitude had translated into raw numbers that jump right off the page: 14 points in the paint to Army’s zero, as well as a 12-to-nothing advantage off turnovers. The second-chance points were equally impressive, with Maryland dominating 15 to 1.
Heading to the locker room, Thomas had already registered a double-double of 13 points and 11 rebounds, despite actually having a poor day from the field (she finished the game shooting 4-for-14 from the floor). She would add three more rebounds, but no more points in the second half, before heading to the sideline as Frese began to empty her bench.
With 3:30 left in the first half, Thomas broke Juan Dixon’s all-time scoring record at the University of Maryland with a free throw she earned after a scrappy offensive rebound. This milestone comes after a long line of personal accolades she has earned in her tenure playing in College Park. She has won three consecutive ACC Player of the Year honors, and earlier this season she surpassed Crystal Langhorne as the all-time women's career scoring leader for the Terps. She also passed Langhorne’s record for most double-doubles by a female player; spectacularly, this season she is averaging 18.7 points and 10.8 rebounds per game.
Maryland’s second half was held steady by its starting guards, Lexie Brown and Katie Rutan, who each shot 4-for-4 from the field. In her first NCAA Tournament appearance, Brown, a freshman, especially dazzled in the later stages of the contest, draining all three of her 3-point-shots in the second frame.
As she stated after the game, “We were a little nervous because of the stage, but when we got rolling, we’re hard to stop.”
One strength clearly evident in this contest -- Maryland's depth. The Terps finished with 38 points off the bench compared to the 13 collective bench points scored by Army (25-8). The primary reasons for this were the rotations employed by the two coaches. While Dave Magarity, the Lady Knights head coach, stuck with a rotation of just seven players for the vast majority of the game, Frese had 10 players log over 10 minutes each, keeping her squad fresh. Of course, Coach Frese had the luxury of playing with a lead after the run that allowed her team to settle in to a comfort zone and really find a rhythm.
Maryland (25-6) managed to keep the rest of the game set at a rapid pace, causing turnover after turnover with its stifling defense and unmatched athleticism. Therefore, two of the most riveting moments of the second half were a pair of substitutions. In stark contrast to Jen Hazlett’s emotional sendoff very late in the action, Coach Frese removed Alyssa Thomas from the game with a full 12:25 left to go. The crowd roared incessantly, and the folks at College Park, numbering 5,743, were anxious for more action.
Game Two: (5) Texas 79, (12) Pennsylvania 61
With a young roster chock full of both talent and size, Texas made its first appearance in the NCAA tournament Sunday under second-year head coach Karen Aston after missing the Big Dance last season. Prior to the coaching change, the program, known for its national title and had been to the tournament the previous six years before Aston took the reins.
The Longhorns are a juggernaut on defense as well as on the boards. But it was their free-throw shooting that saved Texas (22-11) from falling to the champions of the Ivy League, the Quakers of the University of Pennsylvania (22-7), in the second game of the day. Texas combined to shoot a perfect 18-for-18 from the charity stripe, coming from behind to defeat Penn in the teams’ first-ever matchup.
Penn was greeted with considerably better crowd support than their Big-12 counterparts. No doubt it was due in part to the considerably closer 132-mile day trip made by hordes of loyal Penn supporters from Philadelphia to College Park, than the 1,540 mile trek that the Longhorns and the handful of their fans who were able to do so, made to the East Coast from Austin. But whatever the reason, the Comcast Center seemed abuzz with underdog fever, at least after the Maryland game wound up.
It took a while for the Texas offense to get itself established. Brady Sanders struggled early on against the Quakers’ 2-3 zone, a defense that was both long and tough. The Longhorns went scoreless for long stretches in the first half, often courtesy to the defensive efforts of Kara Bonenberger, a 6-1 junior who finished third in the Ivy League in field-goal percentage. Between Bonenberger, Sydney Stipanovich, and backup Courtney Wilson, the Penn front court took charge after charge, putting their bodies on the line for each other and their coach, Mike McLaughlin.
McLaughlin is the kind of coach you can’t help but cheer for: ultimately positive with an obvious emotional connection to his players, he was the fastest coach in NCAA women’s basketball history to 400 victories. Among his many other awards and accomplishments, most of which involve winning, one trend truly stands out: His teams have a 100% graduation rate for their four-year players.
After the two sides traded baskets for the first five minutes, Alyssa Baron drained a trey to put the Quakers on top, 10-8. After Texas briefly put itself back in the lead on a pair of free throws roughly three minutes later, it was Baron again, this time with a layup, to make it 16-15, Penn, at the 12:06 mark. That bucket, and another Baron 3-pointer, bookeneded a 9-0 Penn run over the next two minutes, to give the Quakers a eight-point advantage (23-15). After another pair from the line broke the drought, the Quakers were again off and running on a second 9-0 spurt, this one putting Penn up by double digits (32-17) heading into the last five minutes of the half.
Celina Rodrigo finally hit a short-range jumper with just under four minutes to go in the half that finally stopped the hemorrhaging and launch a 7-0 Texas rally that finally got the Horns back into the game. However, fouls kept leaking away the momentum, allowing Penn to get cheap points at the line. Texas finished the half with two buckets that whittled the Penn edge to seven (38-31) heading into the break, but that did little to stop the upset buzz circulating throughout the arena.
Second-year head coach Karen Aston must have given quite a halftime pep talk, because Texas took the floor in the second frame with renewed energy, dropping in two layups in quick succession to make it a three-point game (38-35) less than one minute into the period. Penn was far from finished, however, stretching its edge back to as many as eight, but this time the Horns were fighting back quickly and far more effectively.
Texas took back the lead (44-43), this time for good, on a Chassidy Fussell triple with 14:39 to go, and the Horns began to pull away from there. With the Penn posts limited by increasing foul trouble, they ceased to be effective at finding good looks at the basket. With their momentum shattered, it was fairly easy for the Texas team to pick the exhausted Penn players apart with their superior skill sets.
A clear standout performance was given by the Texas sophomore center Imani McGee-Stafford. As the daughter of USC legend Pamela McGee and a half-sister to the Denver Nugget’s JaVale McGee of the NBA, it is no wonder that her athleticism was leaps and bounds above almost any player on the court. Her first half was not one to write back to Austin about, but she exploded after halftime with 15 points, seven rebounds, and a pair of steals, morphing into a monster on the low post, demanding on inlet passes and using every part of her 6-7 frame to exploit the fact that Kara Bonenberger fouled out with 7:03 remaining. McGee-Stafford finished the day with a team-high 20 points to go with a game-high 12 boards for the double-double.
This year McGee-Stafford is a member of the All Big-12 second team, a year after being named the Big 12 Freshman of the Year. Asked about her team’s halftime deficit, she responded, “I don’t want to say I freaked out about the score, but it was in my mind.” The poise she showed in the press room is indicative that Imani has come a long way from being benched early in the season for attitude issues.
Nekia Jones added 14 points and Empress Davenport 10 for the Horns.
Alyssa Baron, the Penn senior from Miami, Fla., was the catalyst for her team’s surprising, albeit limited, success. The Ivy Player of the Year, and unanimous first-team Ivy League selection, led all scorers with 25 points, including 4-9 from beyond the arc, and also dealt out five assists, another game high. Stipanovich and Wilson 10 for the Quakers.
Texas out-rebounded the Quakers, 44-28, though Penn was able to pull out a one-rebound edge (13-12) on the offensive glass. Despite being the team leader on the boards with 8.8 per game, Nneka Enemkpali was held without a rebound the entire game. Part of this was the dominance of McGee-Stafford, who was busily vacuuming up everything in sight, but credit is also due to the collective strength of the Penn bigs. In other Lady Longhorn news, going into the second-round bout on Sunday, senior Chassidy Fussell is now one point shy of cracking the top-10 all-time Texas scoring list.
Similar to the earlier Maryland-Army mismatch, the Texas bench outscored the Quakers, 40-13. This sheds a light on one of the fundamental advantages the big conferences have over many of the mid-majors: depth. The problem facing teams such as Army and Penn is not that they don’t have the horses that can win the race, it's that they don’t have enough of them to always keep pace.
Second Round: (5) Texas (22-11) @ (4) Maryland (25-6) -- Tuesday, March 25 -- 7:05 p.m. EDT (Comcast Center, College Park, Md.)