Women’s Basketball battles back from down 14 to beat Illinois in Big Ten Tournament opener

Courtesy of Maryland Athletics

Trailing by one, but still with two minutes remaining in the third quarter, an opportunistic Maryland (18-12) was on the cusp of taking the lead against Illinois (14-15), after trailing by as many as 14 points in the first half of their Big Ten Tournament opener.

Following an Illini miss, Bri McDaniel grabbed a rebound and pushed the pace up the floor in transition. The ball eventually made its way to Allie Kubek, who managed to draw multiple defenders in the paint. Open though, was Shyanne Sellers at the top of the key. 

Kubek managed to dish a pass to Sellers, who rose up and knocked down a wide-open two giving Maryland the advantage it had been chasing virtually the entire game.

McDaniel (first career double-double), Kubek (13 points and six rebounds off of the bench), and Brinae Alexander (12 points and six rebounds), all had crucial performances on Thursday, as the Terps held onto the lead the rest of the way, gutting out a 75-65 victory. 

“[I] Love that we flipped the script in the second, third, and fourth quarters,” said Maryland head coach Brenda Frese. “[Bri]nae, Bri, Allie leading the way for us says a lot about how this team dug deep and found a way to battle.”

Maryland started slow in its regular season finale against No. 12 Indiana this past Sunday, and the same was true against Illinois on Thursday. After just five and a half minutes, the Terps found themselves down 18-7, following an emphatic 14-2 Illini run. 

The Terps simply couldn’t stop Makira Cook and Camille Hobby, who had 8 and 9 points respectively in the first quarter. Cook was finding her spots in the mid-range, while Hobby was giving the Terps fits inside of the paint because of their lack of size. 

“I really thought we were going to play more zone in this game because we had the first two games [against Illinois],” said Frese. “When we went all predominantly man, we just got a lot more aggressive, dialed up, and made them have to take difficult shots.”

On offense Maryland dealt with layup struggles, which also seemed to carry over from the loss to Indiana. The Terps missed 12 of their 17 attempted lays in the first half against the Hoosiers. In the first quarter on Thursday, they posted a similarly underwhelming clip, going just three for nine. 

Additional worries came early in the second quarter for Maryland when Shyanne Sellers picked up her second personal foul, leaving her on the bench while the Terps desperately needed to close the early deficit.

Yet, despite not having Sellers to play floor general for a good portion of the quarter, Maryland found a way to answer back. The Terps outscored the Illini 25-13 in the second quarter, reducing the Illinois lead to just one possession at the break. 

“We just came together and told each other we’ve got to pick this up and be better on the defensive end,” said McDaniel. “We … put together a good game after we were down and just … never looked back.”  

While the Maryland offense eventually found its groove, it all started on the defensive end. Against an Illinois team that’s tenth in the country in turnovers per game – with an average of just under 12 – the Terp managed to force nine first-half turnovers, which they converted into 15 points.  

During a timeout midway through the second frame, the Big Ten Network’s broadcast aired a clip from inside the Maryland huddle, in which coach Frese pointed to Alexander and said, “Right now her will to win is greater than anyone’s.” 

This wasn’t a shot at her team, but rather a way of urging the Terps to find Alexander on the offensive end, since the graduate student got off to a strong start from three. 

While the Terps struggled to find Alexander in open looks coming out of that timeout, Frese’s words did seem to resonate with the rest of the team, as Maryland made four triples in the second quarter. Even though that figure isn’t incredibly high, the Terps don’t have many high-volume three-point shooters (Alexander is pretty much the only one) and yet nearly half of their second-quarter points came from behind the arc. Two of them came from Kubek, who attempts less than one three-pointer a game. 

“I just love the resiliency. I thought Allie started slow, but to come back and …  hit those threes, I thought was big,” said Frese. “That really boosted our team … confidence.”

Despite the halftime momentum from a strong second quarter, Maryland didn’t have an ideal start to the third. The Illini shot five-for-seven to open the quarter but went ice cold after the hot start. Sellers’ previously mentioned, lead-changing jumper was part of a 16-2 run which the Terps used to close out the third quarter with a five-point lead.  

“Maryland basketball is getting out, rebounding, and running in transition,” said Alexander. “In the first half we really didn’t make them work hard for their shots. I think we went in at half and made it a point to make them work for everything that they got.”

In a tight fourth quarter though, the Illini continued fighting. 

With three and a half minutes remaining, Sellers’ early foul trouble came back to haunt as the junior fouled out and was incensed on her way back to the bench. Her departure could have easily been the late-game turning point that shifted the tide in favor of Illinois.

The scoring mostly dried up from the field without Sellers on the floor, but the Maryland defense came together to mediate the final pushes from the Illini, forcing numerous empty trips and ultimately reducing Illinois to play the foul game as the clock slowly ticked to zero. 

Thursday’s win marked the largest deficit that Maryland has overcome this season, a really positive sign for a team that has found themselves on the wrong end of multiple comebacks throughout the year. 

“I think this win shows we’re an NCAA Tournament team,” said Frese. “We have wins over Syracuse, three wins over Illinois, [a] win over Penn State, six wins over top-55 teams. [We also have] a top seven strength of schedule and the toughest schedule in the Big Ten. I think that type of schedule prepared us to never flinch.”

The celebrations for the Terps will be short-lived though, as they again return to the Target Center floor at 12:30 p.m. EST on Friday, for their third meeting this season with top-seeded Ohio State (25-4).  

“Finish it,” said Frese, when asked about what the Terps need to do to best the Buckeyes. “Both times we’ve been right there, … so from our end, it’s finishing the 40 minutes.