Preview: Maryland looks for crucial home win over Penn State

Courtesy of Maryland Athletics

According to ESPN Bracketology, the 14-10 Terps are on the bubble for a 2024 NCAA Tournament selection, currently slotted under the ‘Last Four In’ category. An up-and-down season of key wins and close losses, Brenda Frese’s team will need to make a statement throughout a difficult five-game stretch to guarantee a 13th consecutive postseason appearance.

Maryland’s final push for the NCAA Tournament begins this Sunday, as they welcome in Penn State (16-9) for a 1:00 p.m. matinee matchup in College Park.

Just under three weeks ago, the Terps traveled to State College to take on the Nittany Lions. Things didn’t go according to plan. An incredibly efficient shooting display from the home team resulted in Maryland leaving the Bryce Jordan Center with a near 40-point loss.

But a lot has changed since then. For starters, on January 31, fifth-year Penn State senior guard Tay Valladay (11.5 PPG) suffered a leg injury – later announcing she would be sidelined for the remainder of the 2023-24 season with a torn meniscus and ACL. As one of the team’s primary leaders and prime contributors, especially on the defensive end, the injury marked a brutal blow to this veteran-heavy Nittany Lions’ squad.

To put Valladay’s impact into perspective, it’s worth noting that while the star guard was healthy and playing, Penn State entered 2024 as one of the hottest teams in the nation – having won seven of its first eight games to begin the new year. But since Valladay’s injury, the Nittany Lions have struggled to say the least – dropping four straight games (two of those being at home). Before this recent rough stretch, Penn State was averaging more than 86 total points per contest – a mark they’ve eclipsed just once since Valladay went down.

After Thursday’s 86-71 home loss to Illinois, Nittany Lions’ coach Carolyn Kieger said the team is “begging” for players to step up, noting that they’re “not anywhere close” to where the team wants and expects to be heading into the back end of Big Ten conference play.

“Leadership, toughness and effort,” stressed Kieger. “That’s what Tay [Valladay] brought, and that’s what we’re missing.”

But even without one of its leading contributors, Penn State still has the offensive weapons to catch fire without warning. At the top of the scouting report is a player Maryland knows well – former Terp Ashley Owusu (18.9 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 4.2 APG), a senior transfer that can score in bunches. In Penn State’s win over the Terps last month, Owusu dominated the game in all facets, with a balanced 16 points, six rebounds, and seven assists (shooting an efficient 40% from beyond the arc as well).

The star scorer and playmaker has stepped up big time for the Nittany Lions in the wake of Valladay’s injury – leading the team in points in each of the last four outings (having scored 18, 18, 24, and 15 across that span, respectively). 

On the flip side, the Terps are riding a wave of momentum as of late – having started February with a close, competitive single-digit loss to No. 3 Iowa, followed by a recent two-game win streak (victories over Rutgers and Illinois).

“I feel like we’re peaking at the right time,” Maryland star junior Shyanne Sellers said last week. “We’re coming together now and being more cohesive.”

Though the Terps are playing winning basketball, scoring as a whole has been an issue as of late. 

Maryland failed to score 70 points in both of those two recent victories mentioned – escaping with close wins due to its swarming pressure and relentless defense.

Sellers (15.5 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 5.2 APG), Jakia Brown-Turner (13.0 PPG, 6.0 RPG), Lavender Briggs (9.3 PPG, 5.2 RPG), and Bri McDaniel (13.0 PPG, 1.7 SPG) have led the Terps in the scoring department through many high-stake games this season, but big-time performances from more than capable X-factors in Allie Kubek (8.4 PPG, 4.2 RPG), Brinae Alexander (8.6 PPG), and Faith Masonius (6.2 PPG) will pay dividends to a high-scoring display on Sunday.

If the Terps have others step up scoring-wise, put last month’s game in the rearview mirror, and focus on limiting Owusu’s scoring attack while keeping pressure on Penn State’s various other perimeter shooters, a third consecutive victory (and certainly a much more competitive game) is well within reach for Maryland this time around.