By Peter Koutroumpis
RALEIGH, N.C. – March Madness took hold in the Triangle with opening-round play in the 2018 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament at Reynolds Coliseum on Friday.
The fifth-seeded Maryland Terrapins had their hands full against a tenacious squad in the 12th-seeded Princeton Tigers, but eventually came away with a 77-57 win.
“The story of our team all season long has been it’s not one person, but everybody sharing the load,” Maryland head coach Brenda Frese said.
“I thought you saw collectively the strength of our team today.”
Kaila Charles led Maryland with 20 points and five rebounds that was supported by 16 points and five rebounds from Eleanna Christinaki, and 14 points, three rebounds, and three steals from Kristen Confroy.
The Tigers’ top three couldn’t match the Terps’ top trio.
Abby Meyers finished with 13 points, two assists and two steals, while Ivy League Player of the Year Bella Alarie led the Tigers with a team-high six rebounds to go with 12 points and four assists.
First Team All-Ivy Leslie Robinson supported at both ends of the court and finished with a well-rounded nine points, six rebounds, five assists, and three steals.
However, it wasn’t enough according to Princeton head coach Courtney Banghart whose team was outrebounded by a 43-25 margin.
“That was not Princeton basketball. I want to give credit to Maryland, and we know them to be a good team. As the NCAA Tournament and the Ivy League requires, you need to give your best, and I don’t think on either side of the ball we were able to do that.
“If you don’t play well in the NCAA Tournament, you’re going to lose. We are living examples of that. If you play well in the NCAA Tournament and you’re a good team, you’ll win, which we are also living examples of.”
The Tigers met a similar fate against Maryland as they did the last time the two programs met back in the second round of the 2015 NCAA Tournament, and hold an 0-3 all-time record against the Terps.
With the win, Maryland moved on to play in the Tournament’s second round on Sunday to face the fourth-seeded N.C. State Wolfpack, 62-35 winners over Elon.
Maryland led 31-26 with Confroy, Christinaki, and Myers tallying eight, seven, and six points, respectively.
Alarie posted six points to lead Princeton’s scoring that included contributions from seven different players.
While holding the lead through the opening half with production from the free throw line, a 6-0 run to start the third quarter extended Maryland’s lead to double digits, leading 37-26 at the 7:53 mark.
The Tigers went scoreless for nearly four minutes.
“We just knew they really wanted to slow down the game,” Confroy said.
“For us to really impose our will and play the speed we wanted to, we knew we needed ball pressure and high hands to really try to speed them up. I thought we had great success with that early in the first quarter and then sort of died out a little bit. But especially in the second half, we were able to dictate on the defensive end and speed them up to play our pace.”
The Tigers opened the game’s scoring with a layup from Sydney Jordan before the Terps dropped six points quickly, forcing turnovers off the press in the Princeton backcourt.
Maryland led 9-5 at the five-minute mark.
Interior passing against an aggressive Princeton defense paid off with a layup from Brianna Fraser that extended the Terrapins’ lead to 13-8.
A three from Meyers pulled the Tigers within four.
A jumper inside from Christinaki then put the Terps back ahead by six, leading 17-11 heading into the second period.
“It wasn’t a shock,” Alarie said of what to expect of the Maryland defense.
“We knew they were going to pressure us. It was just the fact we couldn’t combat it the way we wanted to, which is frustrating because that’s what we’ve been focusing on all week. It was just the pressure and something we weren’t ready for, but something we weren’t able to combat.”
A three from the Tigers’ Gabrielle Rush was matched by back-to-back layups from Myers and Christinaki.
Maryland led 21-15 with 4:55 to play.
While both teams missed successive shots, each battled back-and-forth for the points they scored.
Maryland turnovers helped the Tigers to stay close, scoring four straight as the period ended.
However, 8-of-9 shooting from the free throw line kept the Terps ahead and leading 31-26.
An 8-0 run from the Terps led by Charles and Christinaki provided the fuel to boost the Terps’ lead up to 39-26 with seven minutes remaining.
Meyers’ jumper from the left wing registered the Tigers’ first points in the period at 6:04.
Maryland held a 39-28 margin at the media timeout with 4:38 to go.
Led by Confroy, Charles, and Christinaki, the Terps’ 22-10 differential in the period had them ahead 53-36.
“We were really unable to move the basketball North-South,” Banghart pointed out.
“We spent a lot of time East-West, and I don’t quite know why because we spend a lot of our time on North-South. That led to defensive breakdowns with discipline. Part of being able to beat a good team, you’ve got to be so locked in a both ends. You get fatigued. Both teams do, but it’s much easier to get tired when your shots aren’t falling. Maryland was able to get some good run-outs and baskets in transition.”
Princeton continued to struggle to keep pace offensively, trailing by 26 points, 68-42, with 4:09 remaining.
Confroy, Charles, and Christinaki kept Maryland’s offense churning.
Other than two successful free throws each, the offensive effectiveness of Alarie and Robinson was minimized and allowed the Terps to cruise to a dominant opening-round win.
“They definitely had a player stick on me the whole time,” Robinson said.
“It was kind of hard to get in position to score the way I’m used to. We did find opportunities for high-low, which we really like to play. It was trying to get out of the really close face-guard that I’m not super used to, especially in the Ivy League.”
Peter Koutroumpis, 401-323-8960, @pksport