INDIANAPOLIS — It didn’t matter if she was well-defended, or if there was a hand in her face. The way she was playing Saturday, Maryland women’s basketball guard Ieshia Small was still going to shoot, and she was probably going to score.
In need of offensive production near the midway point of their Big Ten tournament semifinal against No. 3-seed Nebraska, the Terps turned to their bench, especially Small, and the supporting cast rose to the occasion.
Small heated up and scored nine of Maryland’s first 12 points in the second quarter, helping the Terps outscore the Huskers, 17-8, in the frame and give them the cushion they needed to beat Nebraska, 66-53, advancing to their fourth consecutive Big Ten championship game.
“God, he talked to me,” Small said. “He was like, ‘Ieshia, this is your night,’ and I was like, ‘For real, God? Yeah!’ [It’s] just knowing the moment. My teammates and coaches do a great job taking advantage of whoever has the hot hand and today it was my day.”
Small, the Big Ten Sixth Player of the year, finished with 13 points. Forward Brianna Fraser, another bench player, led the Terps with 18 points while guard Eleanna Christinaki notched a double-double, scoring 14 points and grabbing 16 rebounds.
Coach Brenda Frese said the play of Small and Fraser of the bench was huge, and the Terps were able to lean on Fraser as well as Christinaki, a starter, down the stretch.
“Our teammates, they just feed us a lot of energy,” Fraser said. “Even if they aren’t scoring, they feed us the ball.”
Early on, neither team could establish an offensive rhythm. However, the Terps (25-6) got the better of the Huskers (21-10) defensively, forcing seven first-half turnovers.
On several defensive possessions, a demonstrative Frese jumped around on the sidelines, waving her arms and imploring the Terps to maintain their intensity.
“We came out with a ton of energy and it started on the defensive end,” Frese said. “Our defense and our rebounding. Just like you’ve seen all year, so many key contributions.”
In the previous two meetings between the squads, Maryland succeeded in getting Huskers center Kate Cain in early foul trouble. They made it three in a row on Saturday, and with the shot-blocking specialist out of the game for the final 8:19 of the first half, the Terps widened their lead.
Frese said it the first two times, and she reiterated the importance of keeping Cain off the floor. She said Fraser was the X-factor in drawing fouls from Cain, who is a big piece of Nebraska’s identity.
In Maryland’s win over Indiana on Friday night, freshman point guard Channise Lewis sparked a 9-0 run with a 3-pointer to help the Terps pull away from the Hoosiers. Early in the second quarter Saturday, Lewis capped a 9-0 run with another triple as the Terps separated from the Huskers.
Behind Small’s 13 first-half points, most of which came from her mid-range jump shot, the Terps took a 10-point cushion into halftime. Nebraska shot just 26.1 percent from the field in the first half.
It didn’t get much better for the Huskers after intermission, as Maryland kept them to 31.4 percent from the field Saturday. Meanwhile, the Terps continued to add to their lead and never allowed the Huskers closer than seven points in the second half.
“We had some close games with [Nebraska],” Small said. “This time, we knew we had to put our foot on their throat and stick with it and keep playing with them …We knew we had to come in, knock them out real quick, and keep it moving.”
Maryland remains unbeaten in its short Big Ten tournament history and will play for the conference championship for the fourth consecutive season on Sunday night against No. 1-seed Ohio State.
Fraser said that she wants to continue the team’s conference tournament success. Guard Kristen Confroy, who will play in her fourth Big Ten championship game, acknowledged it’s becoming the norm for the Terps.
“That’s an expectation here and that’s the culture we’ve built,” Confroy said. “I’m really excited for this team because of the path we’ve had, the growth we’ve had and all the doubters, having a chance to really prove how great of a team we really are.”