Coming in as one of the hottest teams in the country, Maryland women’s basketball made it known early that it wasn’t taking its opponent lightly Sunday.
The Terps went right into their trapping press defense and ran out to a 6-0 run in the game’s opening minutes, capped by forward Kaila Charles’ steal-and-score that brought the crowd to its feet.
Behind Charles’ 16 points and a season-high 25 free throws made as a team, Maryland beat Rutgers, 79-50, to earn its ninth straight win.
“We wanted to embrace the physicality,” coach Brenda Frese said. “For us to have [Rutgers] score the fewest points they’ve scored in conference play … it was a pretty flawless game.”
Following the 6-0 start, Rutgers quickly called a timeout to regroup. But the Terps remained focused and forced a turnover on the next possession.
Frese’s team executed its signature “12” defense as well as it had all season in the game’s opening minutes. The Scarlet Knights had four giveaways and a double-digit deficit within the first five minutes but cleaned up their act thereafter.
They couldn’t contain Charles, though, as she notched 10 points and four rebounds in the opening period. Her athleticism was on full display while skying for several offensive rebounds and beating Rutgers defenders down the floor for layups.
She was also feeling her jumper and hit three long midrange pull-ups on possessions when her team struggled to find an open shot. The Terps mostly found good looks, though, and shot 55.6 percent in the frame.
“[Charles] played like the All-American that she is,” Frese said. “She’s just set the tone for us this last month and we couldn’t do it without her leadership.”
The second quarter was more of the same, but this time Maryland’s defense helped balloon its lead. The team held Rutgers to just 14.3 percent from the floor, forced four turnovers and outrebounded the opposition by four.
Outside of guard Blair Watson, who hit two triples in the period, the Terps missed a handful of easy shots. Multiple layups that should have gone in rolled off the rim into the hands of Scarlet Knights players, but Maryland’s aggressiveness earned it trips to the free-throw line, where it made all seven attempts.
Frese’s squad trotted into the break up 18 after executing the game plan to near-perfection.
The beginning of the third quarter saw the game’s pace come to a screeching halt. Rutgers couldn’t play defense without fouling, and the Terps took full advantage at the free-throw line. They made all but one of their 13 attempts in the frame, which helped slightly grow the lead despite some shooting woes.
“[Free throws] have been an area we’ve talked about [that] in postseason we don’t want those ‘free-bees’ at the free throw line to cost us our season,” Frese said. “Really focused effort, and I loved the fact that we got there 29 times today.”
After opening up the period in the team’s press defense, Frese briefly chose to switch to a 2-3 zone. She’s been experimenting with different zone looks over the last few games, but the Terps gave up multiple wide-open shots to Rutgers when not in man-to-man.
She would quickly switch out of it, and Maryland began to play its steal-and-score brand of basketball once again. Guard Ashley Owusu continued to push the pace, scoring six and tallying two assists in the process.
“I’m most comfortable in transition,” Owusu said. “Just keeping my head on a swivel being able to locate my teammates.”
Forward Shakira Austin also looked reinvigorated in the period. She played only nine minutes in the first half because of foul trouble, but she was a force in the third. Her teammates repeatedly fed her in the post, where she made both of her shots and went 4-of-5 from the charity stripe.
A 25-point lead heading into the final frame allowed the Maryland bench to get a good run and coast to victory. Although the team took its foot off the gas and had some sloppy offensive possession to start the quarter, forward Stephanie Jones’ and-1 as the shot clock sounded garnered one last eruption from the crowd and put the finishing touches on the contest.
With the victory, Maryland earned its fourth-straight double-digit win and remains tied with Iowa for first place in the Big Ten.
“The better question is what didn’t they do,” Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said when asked what the Terps did to give her team trouble. “They flat-out just outplayed us in every aspect of the game. Period.”