by Gabe Fernandez
In their final game of 2016, No. 4 Maryland suffered their first loss of the season as they fell 87-81 to No. 1 Connecticut in front of a Big 10 record-setting sold-out crowd at Xfinity Center on Thursday.
While both teams entered arguably their toughest matchup of the season undefeated, it was Maryland that was unable to make history and snap UConn’s 86-game winning streak. Despite the record and the odds being on the Huskies’ side, coach Geno Auriemma did not underestimate the abilities of the Terps.
“Obviously this was going to be extremely difficult because of the way [Maryland] play,” said Auriemma. “They’re just so aggressive and so athletic and they just come to win they just come at you. But they’re playing the number one team in the country. Everything that happened, except us going up 19, I expected that and I expected it to be that kind of game.”
UConn began the game as prepared as ever in the first quarter by holding the Terps to 29% shooting and not allowing a basket until about three minutes into the game when senior forward Brionna Jones was fouled and sent to the line to shoot free throws. The Huskies even capped the hot start off with an 8-0 run to end the quarter.
The Terps did make up the ground they lost in the beginning by starting the second quarter with a steal that led to a fast-break layup, and freshman guard Destiny Slocum’s first points of the game. Maryland even tied the game at 27 at one point which caused the sold-out Xfinity Center to erupt. The home fans continued the energy into halftime after Blair Watson scored a layup off of a steal to end the half.
Unfortunately, the team could not take the fans’ energy with them into the third quarter. Connecticut began the second half on a 15-0 run that had the Terps down by 19 points after only three minutes. Naturally, Maryland’s head coach Brenda Frese was not pleased how the third quarter began.
“[UConn makes] you pay for all types of breakdowns,” said Frese after the game. “The first and third quarters were the difference tonight and they played out similarly which is a little disappointing because we were ready for it but I don’t think we responded well coming out of halftime. I don’t think we handled that well at all.”
The Terps did eventually start to pick up their game by going 6-7 from the field to end the quarter. The offense took advantage of the holes left behind by UConn forwards Gabby Williams and Napheesa Collier who both had to be subbed out due to foul trouble midway through the third.
Maryland did cut the lead in the third to 15 thanks in part to Slocum who truly came alive in the second half. The freshman ended the game with 23 points, seven assists and four rebounds and spoke about coach Frese’s trust in her to lead the Terps’ offense.
“The coach is really patient with me,” said Slocum after the game. “There’ll be times where she’ll say something right in my ear but it’ll be something motivating. That’s really good for me because instead of just yelling at me, she’ll be encouraging and say ‘play like you’re playing at the park, Destiny!’ and I’ll think ‘ok!’ The positive vibes keep you going as a freshman.”
In the fourth, Maryland began to show signs of potentially taking over the game due to late efforts down low by Brionna Jones and on the perimeter by Slocum. Jones, who had eight points coming out of halftime, scored the remaining 11 of her 19 in the fourth quarter. She ended the game with a double-double tacking on 13 rebounds.
The Terps found these late-game bursts to be too little too late as they began to trade baskets with the Huskies while still trailing. The game essentially ended on a dagger three by senior guard Saniya Chong, who ended the night with 10 pts and 5 assists, to put UConn up 84-75 with 33.4 seconds remaining in the game.
The standout player for UConn was Katie Lou Samuelson who scored 23 points from almost all spots on the court despite being doubtful to play tonight due to an illness that had her “vomiting on the sideline” during warmups, according to coach Frese. Slocum commented on Samuelson’s tenacity after the game.
“I just think she’s a relentless player,” said Slocum. “She’s just a tough player to guard. She can get to the rim, she can do a lot so I would just say she’s an overall good player.”
Looking ahead, Frese was optimistic about the team despite the loss. She called her freshman standouts Slocum and Kaila Charles, who had 18 points, six rebounds and four steals, “fearless and confident” and was really happy with what the team did overall.
“Big picture, it’s December 29th and we learned a lot about our team today,” said Frese. “We’ll learn a lot from this game and use what we learned going forward to March.”
Maryland looks to rebound from this loss and go back to their winning ways on New Year’s Day at Minnesota.