As Rutgers forward Stasha Carey readied at the foul line to extend the Scarlet Knights’ 69-63 lead with just 13.5 seconds remaining on New Year’s Eve, three crestfallen Maryland women’s basketball players stood with their hands on their hips as they watched the game slip away.
A fourth, forward Brianna Fraser, leaned over and grasped her knees in despondency.
With the final seconds ticking down, the Terps had stoically realized that they were destined for their first defeat of the season. And as Carey sunk both attempts to give the visitors an insurmountable three-possession advantage, Maryland’s premonition had come to form, and Rutgers upset the then-No. 4 Terps, 73-65, at the Xfinity Center.
But since that letdown, No. 10 Maryland has won nine of its past 10 contests — including six straight by double-digits — to set up a monumental second meeting with No. 20 Rutgers on Sunday. The winner will control its own destiny in the race for a Big Ten championship.
This time around, the Terps hope to use what they learned from their earlier defeat to avoid a similar fate.
“We didn’t play our best game,” coach Brenda Frese said. “But when I watched that game again, I know we’re a different team. So are they.”
In the late-December matchup in College Park, Maryland dealt with unexpected falters in the rebounding department.
The Terps (21-2, 10-2 Big Ten) relinquished 19 offensive boards to Rutgers, and Maryland — which ranks No. 9 in the NCAA in rebounding margin — was repeatedly exposed for missed box-out assignments. The Scarlet Knights (17-5, 9-2) finished the game with a 38-28 edge on the boards.
But since a 77-60 thrashing at the hands of then-No. 17 Michigan State — during which the Terps were outrebounded by seven — Maryland has shored up its rebounding blight. And aided by six-consecutive matchups with more rebounds than the opposition, the Terps have reeled off six wins in as many contests; just in time for their important weekend matchup.
“Last game we let them dictate, and so this game we’re trying to focus on punching first and keeping the pedal on them,” said guard Kaila Charles, who had 15 points and six boards in the first meeting. “And just dictating and not reacting.”
At the time of the defeat to Rutgers, Maryland’s loss appeared to be a major upset. The Scarlet Knights entered the game with a 9-3 record but had yet to receive a single vote in the AP poll.
Yet, since scoring the top-5 upset over the Terps, Rutgers has been red-hot, winning eight of its past 10 contests. And before a 60-46 loss to Minnesota on Feb. 3, the Scarlet Knights were alone at the top of the Big Ten standings.
With Maryland having just throttled Northwestern, 72-57, for a confidence-boosting tune-up on Thursday, both teams appear to be peaking at the right time.
“If we can come out and play like this for this game [against the Wildcats], then we can do the same for our the next game,” forward Stephanie Jones said. “If we just keep our energy like we did for this game, and our focus too, then we’ll be good.”
Still, if the Terps are to avenge their earlier defeat to the Scarlet Knights, they must do so in a place where no away team has triumphed so far this season. Rutgers maintains a perfect 11-0 mark at the Rutgers Athletic Center.
But despite the tough environment, Maryland doesn’t seem deterred. And if the Terps can mirror the teams’ last meeting and hand the Scarlet Knights a home loss of their own, Maryland would have the inside track for its fourth regular season Big Ten title in five years.
“We know when you go to the RAC, it’s a whole different beast when you get up there,” Frese said. “But I know we’re all excited about the matchup.”