Maryland women’s basketball Coach Brenda Frese said earlier this week she was eager to see where the Terrapins stood relative to Connecticut, the top-ranked team in the country.
An 87-81 loss Thursday night at sold-out Xfinity Center indicated perhaps the margin of separation is narrowing for No. 4 Maryland against the 11-time national champion.
The Terrapins produced the closest outcome among the three top-four teams that have faced the Huskies this season. Second-ranked Notre Dame and third-ranked Baylor each lost to the Huskies by 11 points.
Maryland (12-1) had not been within 10 points of the Huskies in any of the teams’ previous five meetings.
“Between how close it was — it was the most points they have given up to an opponent in over a year — a lot of positive things that we can build upon,” Frese said following the performance in front of an announced crowd of 17,950, marking the first women’s basketball sellout in College Park since 2007 and fourth in program history.
Trailing by 19 in the third quarter, the Terrapins climbed within six with 1:55 left in regulation on a three-pointer from point guard Destiny Slocum. Maryland and Connecticut (12-0) traded baskets before Huskies senior guard Saniya Chong swished a three-pointer from the left wing for an 84-75 lead with 45 seconds to play.
The closest the Terrapins got thereafter was 86-81 with 15 seconds left.
The difference for the Huskies was a 14-0 surge early in the second half that helped push their winning streak to 87 games. Connecticut holds the NCAA record with 90 straight wins from 2008 through 2011. The last time the Huskies lost was Nov. 17, 2014, in overtime at Stanford, 88-86.
The decisive sequence Thursday began with a three-pointer from junior guard Kia Nurse and sophomore forward Napheesa Collier’s layup. Junior forward Gabby Williams made a jumper, and sophomore guard-forward Katie Lou Samuelson converted the Huskies’ second four-point play of the game.
Moments later, Nurse sank a three-pointer to stretch the lead to 50-31 with 7:23 left in the third, leaving Frese with little choice but to call a timeout.
“The environment, they’re playing the number one team in the country, so everything that happened, except us getting up 19, I expected to happen,” Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma said. “I didn’t think we’d get to 19, and when we were at 19, all I kept thinking about is, ‘Man, I’ve got a feeling it’s going to be two.’ ”
The Terrapins got the crowd back into the proceedings by scoring the first eight points of the fourth quarter, culminating in layups by guard Kaila Charles and reserve center Stephanie Jones, the younger sister of starting center Brionna Jones (19 points, 13 rebounds) .
That flourish got Maryland to 68-61 and had Auriemma signaling for a timeout with 7:23 left in the fourth quarter.
“Most teams would have quit, so it tells you about our team,” Frese said. “They’re so competitive. There’s no quit in this team. We just can’t spot a team like U-Conn. 19 points.”
Slocum led Maryland with 23 points, two off her season high, and Charles added 18 in Maryland’s final nonconference game before Big Ten competition commences on New Year’s Day. Both McDonald’s all-Americans are part of Frese’s heralded freshman class, which was rated as the best in the country entering the season.
Despite a stomach illness, Samuelson scored 23 points in Connecticut’s 31st consecutive road win. Nurse chipped in with 19 as the Huskies shot 51 percent from the field, including 9 for 21 (43 percent) from three-point range.
Maryland also had rallied when it was down eight at the end of the first quarter. Charles’s difficult turnaround jumper over several defenders with 3:45 left until halftime tied it at 27. It was the first time the score was even since 10-10 in the opening minutes.
But the Huskies countered with nine in a row, including Nurse’s four-point play. She turned the feat by sinking a three-pointer while being fouled by junior guard Kristen Confroy and making the bonus free throw with 3:28 to play before halftime.
Williams scored on a layup, and the Huskies led 36-27 when Nurse sank her second three-pointer of the half. Moments later, officials assessed a third personal foul on Williams, compelling Auriemma to sit Connecticut’s leading rebounder for significant minutes.
“We have closed the gap,” Brionna Jones said, “but I think it’s just back to us working on our game, working on getting stops when we need it and just playing through every possession and not taking any plays off. In the third quarter I think we relaxed a little bit, and they took advantage of that. We have to be cognizant of that.”