By Hannah Fields
It was the upset that almost was. The Maryland Terrapins (1-1, 0-0 Big Ten) were set to take on the defending national champions South Carolina (2-0, 0-0 SEC) in a top 15 battle.
From the tip-off to the final buzzer, this much-anticipated matchup did not disappoint. The energy within the Xfinity Center transferred onto the court, with both teams displaying high intensity from the beginning of the first quarter. In a game that was shaping up to be a blowout, the Terps turned the tide with a comeback effort only eight points short, as the Gamecocks sealed a 94-86 win.
“Obviously disappointed with the outcome, but excited by our fight with this young team,” head coach Brenda Frese said.
The Terps started off with several sloppy mistakes, amassing five turnovers in just the first quarter. The Maryland squad also struggled keeping the Gamecocks out of the paint against powerhouses like South Carolina redshirt junior Alexis Jennings and senior forward A’ja Wilson.
South Carolina led the entire first half thanks to Wilson’s 18 points and 12 from Jennings. The Terps showed more strength in the second quarter, doubling their total rebounds. Maryland’s sophomore Blair Watson led the team with nine points at the end of the first half, and she was one of seven Terps to have points on the board.
Though the Terps were able to establish a balanced scoring effort, they struggled keeping possession long enough to get more than three passes off and establish an offensive rhythm.
Despite the defensive effort by Maryland’s zone defense, the Terps gave up 20 points in the paint, and much of that can be credited to Wilson’s relentless presence, whether it be taking shots or fighting for offensive rebounds. Wilson is returning as last season’s leading scorer for the Gamecocks and named the Preseason Player of the year by ESPNW.
“A’ja Wilson is a woman amongst girls,” Frese said. “She’s just that talented.”
The Gamecocks ended the half with a steal and fast break layup and a 51-36 lead.
The third quarter began a new chapter in the books for Maryland. The Terps offense was able to get more chances inside the paint and began to cut into the Gamecocks lead thanks to a surge of energy from Kalia Charles. The sophomore guard scored a career-high 31 points, 27 of those coming just in the second half and nine total rebounds to add to her resume.
“I had a slow first half with foul trouble and I was settling for shots,” Charles said. “Once I saw that I was getting the foul calls and finishing, I just had that mentality to start attacking and not settling.”
With help from her teammates, Charles initiated the comeback for the Terps, who cut the lead down to only six with one minute to go and kept the Terps’ hopes of an upset alive.
“I think our competitive fight showed… we went out in the second half with a different mentality… and just played Maryland basketball,” Charles said.
Wilson, who had been sinking free throws like clockwork, began to show a few cracks in her tough exterior when she missed both of her layups with a minute left in the game. Charles led the counter for the Terps, sinking 14 out of 15 free throws, and cutting the lead down to four with less that 20 seconds to go.
The Terps were forced to foul the Gamecocks to save their chances of pulling off an upset, giving South Carolina four free throws in the final seconds of the game, but failed to score on their last offensive possession.
The Terps ultimately fell short of a comeback win against the reigning champs, but the Terps were able to overcome early adversity and do not see this whole game as a loss.
“I think this team is really going to grow,” Frese said. “For players to be able to play in these kind of atmospheres and this kind of experience is going to be huge.”
The Terps will look to take this experience and channel it into their next two games against Niagara Nov. 16 and the top-ranked UConn Huskies Nov. 19.