No. 9 Maryland women’s basketball uses aggressive defense to top Clemson, 63-44

Forward Shakira Austin goes up for a shot in Maryland women's basketball's 63-54 loss to South Carolina on Nov. 10, 2019. (Julia Nikhinson/The Diamondback)

After Maryland women’s basketball started 1-for-5 from the floor and caused three turnovers in the game’s opening two and a half minutes, coach Brenda Frese chose to go all-in on the defensive end.

She quickly called for a full-court trap, shifting her players’ focus toward intimidating the opposition from the inbound onward and, in turn, allowing her squad to turn defense into easy points.

While shots weren’t falling with regularity, the Terps stayed in attack mode all night on defense en route to a 63-44 win over Clemson in the first round of the Daytona Beach Invitational, causing 29 turnovers that led to 33 points.

“Right now, I’m really excited about our defense because that’s where we were able to hang our hat,” Frese said. “Until [we could] make shots, we were able to do a lot of great things there in the first half defensively that allowed us to kind of put that gap in the game.”

Maryland’s signature “12” defense had the Tigers’ guards struggling to get the ball across halfcourt early on. The Terps forced 10 turnovers in the first quarter and earned easy baskets in return, helping offset the team’s slow start offensively.

With five days between its last game and Friday’s affair, Maryland looked rusty in the first period and in much of the second. Many players left their jumpers short and appeared out of sync despite three consecutive strong offensive outings previously.

But the defense continued to dominate in the second frame, causing eight takeaways and holding Clemson to just one point through the first six minutes. The Terps briefly lost focus and let the Tigers embark on an 11-6 run to end the half, but Frese’s squad still held a 17-point lead.

Other than forward Shakira Austin, who led the way with 15 first-half points and five rebounds, Maryland shot just 29.2 percent from the field and was outrebounded by 15. Frese has highlighted her team’s commitment on the glass as an area to improve in, with bigger teams like South Carolina — Maryland’s only loss this season — having taken advantage of them throughout this year.

“My teammates were just finding me. It started with defense,” Austin said. “We had a lot of energy in our ‘12’, we started off with a lot of steals and we were able to attack on the offensive end and we knew not to settle.”

The team’s staunch first-half defense turned against them in the third period, with eight fouls leading to 14 Clemson free-throw attempts, allowing the Tigers to fight their way back. As Maryland shot just 20 percent from the field, aggressive defense couldn’t save the Terps from their offensive woes, and the lead was cut to 11 by the end of the quarter.

Forward Kaila Charles kept Maryland afloat in the third, scoring seven of her team’s 12 points in the quarter while maintaining high energy and focus when her team was struggling, although she had just one other bucket outside the period.

When the Terps dialed back their gritty defense, the shots started to fall. Five fourth-quarter 3-pointers in the first few minutes of the final frame, four courtesy of guard Blair Watson, put the game out of reach as Maryland cruised to its sixth victory of the season. Watson finished with a season-high 19 points and five triples.

“I thought we did a great job of being able to kick-out to her and she got in a great rhythm. Blair just had a complete game when you talk about her defense, she always brings [it] for us,” Frese said. “We need to be able to knock down shots like that for us to be successful.”

Maryland didn’t have much perimeter production aside from Watson. Guards Taylor Mikesell and Ashley Owusu, both typically strong scorers, never found a rhythm as the tandem shot just 3-for-19 from the field. Owusu, the back-to-back Big Ten Freshman of the Week, posted a season-low six points with Mikesell hitting only one of her seven 3-point attempts.

The bench was also a non-factor for the Terps, with guard Diamond Miller providing seven of their eight total points. The four reserves also committed nine fouls and shot 2-of-11 from the floor, but they remained engaged on the other end.

Even with the shaky offensive performance, Maryland had 16 assists on 21 made shots, marking the fourth straight contest in which more than half of the team’s field goals were assisted.

Friday’s effort was far from well-rounded, but the pesky defense was a bright spot, propelling the Terps past Clemson as they prepare to battle Belmont on Saturday.

“I think it’s just the energy we bring day-in and day-out … it’s like we all build off one another so it’s like once one of us [gets] going then the other one’s going,” Watson said. “You can see it on the floor, you can see it from our traps, from our defense, on the other end and getting steals, getting blocks. All of that we feed off of it and I think it’s really fun to watch.”

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