Second half collapse dooms Maryland women’s basketball in NCAA first round

With a little over two minutes remaining on 10-seeded Maryland’s (19-14) opening-round matchup against 7-seeded Iowa State (21-11), Cyclone center Audi Crooks set a pick-and-roll screen for teammate Emily Ryan at the top of the paint. Crooks’ defender stayed with her as she rolled to the basket, but it didn’t matter.

Crooks received the pass inside from Ryan, which she grabbed and finished over her defender, just like she did nearly every time she touched the ball on Friday night. 

The Cyclones then forced an empty trip for the Terps, before marching right down the floor and getting the ball inside to Crooks. Once again, she finished at the rim, and this time, she gave her team a seven-point lead with a minute remaining, virtually icing the game.

In a heroic performance, Crooks finished with 40 points and 12 rebounds, on 18-20 shooting from the field. 

“Well, I would say it’s obviously one of the best [performances] I’ve ever seen considering the points, the efficiency, the venue, the event,” said Iowa State head coach Bill Fennelly. “We’ve had a lot of great performances, but I think in its totality, it was pretty impressive.”

Late in the first half Maryland led by as many as 20, but after Crooks’ masterclass, the Terps found themselves on the wrong end of the second-largest comeback in women’s NCAA Tournament history, dropping a heartbreaker 93-86.    

“We talked about playing [from] behind but I’m not sure what we were going to be able to do playing behind, especially with our lack of size and playing four perimeter players,” said Maryland head coach Brenda Frese. “They don’t play like a lot of freshmen … They didn’t even flinch being down at halftime.”

On paper, Maryland’s biggest advantage in this matchup was their wealth of experience, and it showed in the early going. The Cyclone defense looked lost at times in the first quarter, leaving the Terps wide open on a number of shots, including several three-pointers. 

The Terps were averaging just five and a half made threes per game entering play, yet they drained six triples in the opening quarter, half of which came from Allie Kubek. The Townson transfer finished 7-8 from behind the arc. Entering Friday’s game Kubek had made 13 three’s the entire season. 

“I had a couple of lulls in the season. That’s because my confidence was low,” said Kubek. “[Today] I just felt hot so I just kept shooting, and to be honest my teammates found me open, and every time I shot it I thought it was going to go in.”

Maryland finished its white-hot first quarter with 33 points, but the Cyclones managed to hang around thanks to Crooks. The Terps rotated defenders on Crooks throughout the game, but their efforts were to little avail.

The freshman had eight of Iowa State’s 20 first-quarter points, and later finished the half with 18 points, as Maryland’s lack of size made it nearly impossible to slow Crooks down when she got the ball down low. 

“I think if we had the personnel, I think we could have,” said Frese when asked about how the Terps could’ve stopped Crooks. “Our best bet was … the first half when we were giving really aggressive ball pressure and we lost a lot of that in the second half. I mean, that was our best defense because we didn’t have an answer for her inside.”

Crooks also helped the Cyclones cut into Maryland’s advantage during the onset of the second quarter, leading a 7-0 run to cut into the deficit. The Terps, however, responded with a 10-0 run – which included more three-point magic from Kubek – to retake control at the half, or so it appeared. 

“At halftime, coach told us what we do is up to us,” said Crooks. “They can’t play the game for us, and it was just a matter of pride just knowing that we weren’t playing to our best abilities.”

After struggling to find open looks throughout the first half, Iowa State’s Hannah Belanger nailed a triple with just under a minute remaining. It was just the Cyclones’ second three-pointer of the half, but Belanger’s make seemed to spark a surge for her squad.

Throughout the first half, the Terps defense had done a brilliant job limiting every Cyclone not named Audi Crooks, but in the third quarter that simply wasn’t the case.

Not only did the Maryland offense go cold, but Kelsey Jones and Emily Ryan got going from the field to help Iowa State take a one-point lead with just under three minutes remaining in the third. 

“What we couldn’t afford was for them to get hot from the three, which they did in the second half and I think that was really the nail in the coffin,” said Maryland point guard Shyanne Sellers. “You saw in the first half, we let [Crooks] have those points, and really shut down everybody else, and [in the] second half [we] … struggled to keep shooters not hot.”

To make matters worse for the Terps, Sellers picked up her fourth foul with the third quarter winding down, forcing Maryland’s leader to the bench as the two teams went to the fourth quarter knotted at 66. 

In heavyweight fashion, Maryland and Iowa traded blows in a back-and-forth final quarter. 

Nearly every time the Cyclones scored, the Terps answered. The difference, however, was lightning-fast 7-0 run that gave Iowa State breathing room in an immensely tense quarter. That slight difference inevitably forced the Terps to play from behind while time was of the essence.

I thought we were getting better looks in the second half,” said Ryan. “When we got offensive rebounds and easy kickout threes, [that’s] when our momentum started rolling. … Effort plays are what really drives this team.”

Playing catch-up, the Terps couldn’t quite reduce the deficit. They were forced to play the foul game in the final minute, leaving them just short of the victory as the Cyclones made enough free throws to seal a Maryland defeat. 

“They had to make the shots and they stayed resilient on their end,” said Frese. “I just thought they were the more disciplined team in the second half running through their actions on the offensive end, staying out of foul trouble.”

Friday evening’s brutal loss marks the end of Maryland’s season, the earliest close the Terps have had to a campaign since they failed to make the tournament in 2010. Additionally, this is the first time that Maryland has ever lost in the first round under Coach Frese. 

With that being said, the program has set extremely lofty standards for itself during Frese’s tenure, and in a year where the Terps didn’t find themselves hosting the opening weekend of the tournament, it was always going to be difficult for them to maintain their typical dominance in March. 

This up-and-down season for Maryland will inevitably be characterized by the plethora of injuries that plagued the rotation, but Friday’s loss serves as a representation of the season as a whole. The adverse 2023-24 campaign was full of opportunities, but time and time again the Terps fell just short of taking full advantage.

“I’m just really proud that this group – and I told them in the locker room – that they never gave up on us [coaches],” said Frese.