Entering the final 10 minutes against Illinois on Monday, Maryland women’s basketball coach Brenda Frese knew her team needed to attack the paint if it wanted to maintain its lead after a 7-0 Illini run tightened the game.
What once was a 24-point lead had atrophied to single-digits — partly due to 1-for-8 shooting from deep and 5-for-18 shooting overall in the third quarter. The 17th-year Maryland coach was tired of seeing her squad settle for long-range jumpers.
But right on cue, forward Brianna Fraser finished at the rim on the No. 10 Terps’ first offensive possession of the fourth quarter, and the floodgates were opened. Of Maryland’s 19 fourth-quarter points, 17 were earned either at the rim or the free throw line, and the Terps finally pulled away to secure an 80-66 victory — their fifth consecutive double-digit triumph.
“This game was won in the post tonight with the weapons we were able to demonstrate,” Frese said. “And we needed every single one of them.”
At the onset, it didn’t appear as if the game would still be contested into the final stages.
The Terps ended the first quarter on a 15-2 run, taking a 12-point lead into the second period. With 3:49 remaining in the half, that lead had swelled to a seemingly insurmountable 46-22. Still, Illinois didn’t give up, and after a 15-2 Illini run and a rough third quarter offensively, Maryland found itself in trouble.
The Terps consistently attacked the rim to the tune of 20 first-half points in the paint, capitalizing on foul trouble for the Illini’s bigs. Illinois forwards Ali Andrews and Alex Wittinger — both six-footers — picked up 3 and 2 fouls, respectively, by the intermission.
“They had to go deep in the bench in the first half,” Frese said.
But with the exception of Austin and Charles — who had Maryland’s only six points down low in the third frame — the Terps struggled to convert in the interior after exiting the locker room.
Yet just as rapidly as Illinois grabbed momentum, Maryland snuffed out the potential comeback by going back to the formula that helped it build an enormous first-half edge.
Fraser set the tone by scoring at the rim on the opening possession of the final quarter; the team followed its lone senior’s lead to outscore the Illini 19-12 over the final 10 minutes. The Terps attempted zero 3-pointers but scored 10 points down low in the fourth period alone.
“To have a Bri Fraser come off the bench to give you 12-and-5 is quite the luxury,” Frese said.
And Austin, who has at times struggled against larger opposing front lines in Big Ten play, took full advantage of her considerable size advantage against the Illini. The Fredericksburg, Virginia, native tied her season high with 17 points on 6-of-9 shooting — her most efficient output of conference play.
“I’ve gotten better at reading where the help is and seeing if I need to kick out to a shooter or seeing if it’s open for me to drive or attack her,” Austin said. “It’s been really beneficial to me.”
By earning its fifth straight victory, Maryland also appears to be peaking at the perfect time. And with the win, the Terps moved back into a tie with No. 20 Rutgers with a 9-2 Big Ten record. Now the stage has been set for a colossal rematch with the Scarlet Knights on Sunday.
However, Maryland can’t overlook its meeting with Northwestern on Thursday, and as the Terps demonstrated against Illinois, the blueprint to their renewed form starts in the paint.
“They did a good job taking advantage of the mismatches inside,” Frese said.