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Terps stunned by Ducks in Sweet 16

Special Contribution to So Much Sports Baltimore
By: Howard Megdal

In perhaps the biggest upset of this year’s women’s NCAA Tournament, the No. 3 seeded Terps season came to an end with a Sweet 16 loss to 10th-seeded Oregon.

BRIDGEPORT, Conn—Just as expected, Destiny Slocum dribbled out the final few seconds of Maryland’s Sweet 16 matchup against Oregon Saturday afternoon.

That moment, however, stood out as perhaps the only normal aspect of the shocking 77-63 loss by the Terrapins, one that ended their season and the remarkable careers of seniors Brionna Jones and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough.

“The thing that really sucks that was going through my head at that last minute is that we sent them out this way,” Maryland point guard Destiny Slocum said at the postgame presser, her eyes filling with tears. “And you know, it sucks when you have two amazing people and two amazing players, and you know they deserve so much more. And I mean, we clawed and we fought for them, and I wish we could have done more, and that was the thing that was going through my head at those last seconds.”

The game stood in remarkable contrast to Maryland’s typical play throughout the year. The Terrapins seldom made unforced errors, keyed by senior wisdom of Jones and Walker-Kimbrough and Slocum, whose decision-making belied her freshman experience. But against an Oregon team that slowed them down to halfcourt play all day, Maryland turned the ball over 21 times.

And the two givens on the offensive end—Jones’ incredible efficiency from the floor, and the team’s three-point attack as a whole—went missing as well. Jones finished 8-for-16, repeatedly bothered by the Oregon size and particularly the defensive pressure of Ducks center Ruthy Hebard. Shooting 50 percent is pretty good by normal standards, but Jones, the most efficient big in the country, is right around 70 percent on the season from the field and missed that many shots just once in 34 games entering Saturday.

“I think early on, I just wasn’t being as patient as I normally was,” Jones said. “But credit to them—they came out hard on defense, and I think once we settled in, we worked out of the double-team better.”

That the game would be played at a score and pace that suited Oregon more than Maryland became clear early on, when both teams went more than three minutes before putting any points on the board at all. Hebard scored the first basket over Jones, and there were a few glimmers of typical Maryland basketball—Slocum got on the board with a pizazz-infused sojurn to the hoop, quickly followed by a steal and coast-to-coast layup trip for Walker-Kimbrough to give Maryland an 8-5 lead. But Oregon kept the possessions few and limited the transition game, taking a 17-16 lead after one quarter.

In the second quarter, the other freshman point guard, Sabrina Ionescu of Oregon, put her stamp on the game. Ionescu drained three threes in the period, each one longer than the last. The third one, on a stepback to create space herself, provided Oregon with a 36-27 halftime cushion.

“Yeah, I said this coming in: I thought Oregon — I likened them to our 2006 National Championship team and how they played when we started two freshmen and two sophomores,” Maryland coach Brenda Frese said following the game. “They’re just fearless. They don’t know any better, that they should be nervous about this moment. They’re confident. They’re really disciplined, and they make you pay for your mistakes.”

The Ducks continued doing so in the second half, with Lexi Bando, the nation’s third-leading three-point shooter, hitting three threes, each one coming on a late closeout from the defense.

But Maryland usually does much the same thing. Oregon is atop the country in three-point shooting accuracy, but Maryland is close behind at fourth overall. So the most shocking stat from the game might be this: the Terrapins did not make a single three all day. And more amazing still, they took just six of them. An Oregon team that entered the game 236th in defensive points per possession in the halfcourt, per Synergy, absolutely took away both Maryland’s interior game and their perimeter threats.

“That’s the area we’ve improved the most from day one,” Oregon coach Kelly Graves said following the game. “I don’t know if you have any game left, but if you’d played us early in the season, you’d have been an All-American. We couldn’t guard anybody, and we’ve gotten better and better and better, and I think that’s where our team has shown the most growth. Your defense is what’s tested in the tournament, and we’ve passed it three times, those tests.”

Meanwhile, a Maryland team that looked to be just 40 minutes from a third matchup against Connecticut in two years instead will be returning to College Park ahead of schedule. The game between the two giants loomed as potentially a paradigm-shifter for the sport. This group had played Connecticut, winners of 109 straight entering the Sweet 16, tough each of the past two seasons, and Frese did not hide her disappointment over missing a third crack at them with this team.

“Yeah, you know, it’s disappointing in terms of our ending because we haven’t played like this for a long time,” Frese said. “So for it to rear its ugly head tonight. And obviously as competitors, yeah, that’s why we continue to put them on our schedule. If you want to be the best, you’ve got to play the best, and we definitely wanted to have another opportunity and felt when we play Maryland basketball that good things happen for us.”

Saturday aside, many good things happened for Maryland basketball in the era of Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Brionna Jones, two likely first-round picks in next month’s WNBA Draft. Frese noted they’ve won 125 games, six conference championships (regular season and conference tournament varieties) and reached two Final Fours.

All of which made the moment when Frese called a timeout and substituted the pair out of the game so surreal. Two of the greatest players in Maryland history, who expected their season to end in Dallas with confetti, instead said tearful goodbyes in a series of hugs down the Maryland bench, while Slocum dribbled out their careers, imagining better endings ahead.

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