Before Maryland women’s basketball coach Brenda Frese was presented with the Big Ten Championship trophy at center court on Saturday, she was again tasked with guiding her squad out of a third-quarter rut against Illinois.
A triple by Illini guard Brandi Beasley brought her team within 43-42 midway through the third period, and for the second-straight time against the last-place Big Ten foe, an ice-cold stretch in the penultimate quarter put Maryland in a surprisingly tight struggle with Illinois.
But the Terps were hardly discouraged.
Following a pair of triples by guard Blair Watson and an old-fashioned three-point play from forward Shakira Austin, part of an electric 11-2 run, Maryland rebuilt its double-digit edge and held on to beat the Illini, 71-62, to win the Big Ten regular season championship outright.
“We had to pull together through some adversity,” Frese said. “In the third quarter, I thought our team kinda came together a little bit stronger and tighter … to help us kinda spread that gap.”
Maryland started slow from the field, shooting just 2-for-10 in the first five minutes of the matchup, but the squad wasn’t devoid of scoring chances early. The Terps (26-3, 15-3) corralled 11 misses on the offensive glass in the opening half but converted the multitude of extra looks into just seven second-chance points.
Despite Maryland’s offensive struggles, the team’s defense continued its torrid form.
After forward Alex Wittinger scored to bring the Illini (10-19, 2-16) within 18-14 with three minutes remaining in the first quarter, Illinois didn’t score again for nearly six minutes. And the Terps went on a 6-0 run — 10-2 overall — to lead 24-14 early in the second frame.
Austin, meanwhile, backed up an eight-block performance against Purdue on Monday with another dominant outing as a rim protector. The freshman swatted away four shots to bring her season total to 77, just three short of the school record for blocks in a season set by Kris Kirchner in 1978-79.
“We went through a lot of their sets,” said Austin, who also added 13 points and nine boards in the win. “We practiced hard this week, making sure we know if it’s a stagger or if I need to be over more.”
However, Illinois eventually found success exploiting Maryland’s lack of post depth with forward Brianna Fraser still unavailable after sustaining a left ankle sprain against Minnesota on Feb. 21.
The visitors whittled the Terps’ lead to just two points with a little more than two minutes left in the half, and coach Brenda Frese turned to 6-foot-4 forward Olivia Owens in the second period for the defender’s frame. It was the earliest the freshman had checked in all season.
“[Frese] was big about everybody stepping up a little bit, trying to fill the void,” guard Taylor Mikesell said. “That’s a big loss that we took.”
Mikesell stepped up accordingly with a pair of triples to help maintain the advantage — she finished with 20 points on 4-of-11 shooting — and Maryland entered the locker room with a 37-33 lead. Both squads shot below 40 percent in the first 20 minutes.
Mirroring the Terps start to the first half, the home team began the second half with another paltry 2-for-10 stretch, and Illinois capitalized to lower Maryland’s lead to just a point. But an immediate 11-2 run, highlighted by a pair of clutch treys by Watson, who finished with 12 points, gave the team a 54-44 lead going into the final quarter.
“Blair and Taylor had some threes that gave us some momentum,” Frese said. “Defensively, I thought we were able to get some one-and-dones.”
The Illini threatened again in the final frame to get within arm’s reach, but Watson drilled another triple to put the scrappy visitors away for good. And despite an up-and-down game offensively, four different Maryland players still managed to reach double-figures scoring, as the Terps overcame Illinois to win their fourth conference title in five tries.
“Love seeing this team being able to find a way,” Frese said. “I feel like we’re battle tested and ready to go to Indy for the Big Ten tournament.”