Terps women hope to 'lock in on defense' against Connecticut in Sweet 16

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The resume of the Maryland women's basketball team during 11 seasons under coach Brenda Frese includes one national championship, four appearances in the NCAA tournament's regional finals and five trips to the Sweet 16, including this weekend in the home state of its next opponent.

Yet the fourth-seeded Terrapins (26-7) arrived here as a prohibitive underdog, attempting to advance to another regional final with a win in Saturday afternoon's game at Webster Bank Arena against No. 1 seed Connecticut (31-4), which has won seven NCAA titles and has been one of the top women's basketball programs over the past two decades.

Maryland focused on strengthening its defense in a 63-48 loss to the Huskies on Dec. 3 at XL Center in Hartford, Conn., and that strategy kept them within striking distance until midway through the second half.

The Terrapins coaches reiterated the game plan in preparation for Saturday's matchup, and it's partially how other teams — Notre Dame, Baylor and St. John's — have beaten one of the deepest and most fundamentally sound teams in the country over the past few seasons.

"I think, similar to last time, we've got to lock in on defense, and that will lead to our offense," Maryland junior forward Alyssa Thomas said. "Last time, I think we did a really good job defending them, so we've just got to keep that up."

In the December game — the first all-time meeting between the schools — Maryland limited Connecticut to 38 percent shooting. That was the Huskies' second-lowest percentage this season, and it helped the Terrapins whittle the margin to seven with 12:59 left in regulation before Connecticut scored eight in a row to pull away.

The Terrapins also forced 17 turnovers, three more than Connecticut averages. In their four losses this season — three to Notre Dame and one to Baylor — the Huskies committed more turnovers than their opponent, including a season-high 35 in a 96-87 loss in triple overtime to the Fighting Irish on March 4.

No other team in the country has been able to frustrate Connecticut like Notre Dame, which is 6-1 against the Huskies in the past two seasons. The Fighting Irish forced more turnovers than it committed in each of those wins, which is key since Notre Dame had a lower shooting percentage than Connecticut in five of the six victories.

"That's obviously a huge part, to be able to take possessions away," Frese said, "where they're not able to score the basketball as freely and as easily as they would like to."

The Terrapins, meanwhile, had issues scoring in the last game against Connecticut. Maryland's point total that evening was its lowest of the season, and it came one game after starting guard Laurin Mincy suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Also without sophomore point guard Brene Moseley, who tore her ACL in October, Maryland was only beginning to assemble a regular rotation in which Thomas has been asked to handle the ball much more than in her first two seasons. In adjusting to her new duties, the two-time ACC Player of the Year missed 10 of 12 shots and finished with six points in 36 minutes.

So another priority, according to Maryland players, is making shots early, although accomplishing that even may not be enough. The Terrapins shot 42 percent to Connecticut's 33 percent in the first half in December, but they still trailed the Huskies, 33-20, at halftime.

"The first thing we always talked about, and I think it gets overlooked with [Connecticut] a lot, is you have to be able to score," said George Washington coach Jonathan Tsipis, who was the top assistant at Notre Dame for nine seasons before taking over for the Colonials this season. "You're just not going to play a game with them in the fifties. It's not going to happen, and obviously you can key on certain things defensively, but I think the first thing we always talked about is how are we going to be able to score."

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