- Graham Hays, espnW.com
- 0 Shares
PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- If any group should understand the intrinsic dangers posed by an underdog opponent that thrives on slow and steady, it ought to be a bunch of turtles. But as a parade of players from Rutgers sauntered to the free-throw line in the closing minutes of Monday's 68-60 win against Maryland, it was clear the Terrapins were no more successful than the original protagonist in the attempt to play the role of hare.
Fading down the stretch after sprinting to a commanding 10-point lead late in the first half, No. 3 Maryland's perfect season came to an end at the hands of sixth-ranked Rutgers in a game between two teams that excel at two completely different paths to success.
"I think all the credit goes to Rutgers," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. "They just had a tremendous game plan, and really, we played into their hands. They wanted a low-scoring game, and I thought they did a tremendous job of dictating tempo."
In truth, both teams met somewhere in the middle when it came to the scoreboard. Maryland's scoring output represented a season low and fell 21 points short of the 81.2 points per game the team was averaging when it arrived in the Garden State.
"We like to believe that we can take most people 10, 15, 20, 25 points off of their average," Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said.
But for her team's part, the Scarlet Knights needed almost all of their season-high scoring output to seal the deal -- 23 more points than they needed to take care of Sylvia Fowles and LSU a week earlier and more points than they scored in the last four rounds of the NCAA Tournament last spring. In fact, the last time the home team's side of the scoreboard at the RAC went higher than 68 was Feb. 20 last year against Providence.
All the same, it's easy to understand why Frese, in her postgame comments, ceded full ownership of the tempo to the hosts. Especially during a second half in which the Terrapins hit just five field goals, it felt like the Scarlet Knights had more control of the proceedings than any bouncer at the door of the clubs just up the road over the George Washington Bridge.
"I thought we came out and really played a really solid first 20 minutes," Frese said. "But the second half, I thought their toughness factor -- they just did a tremendous job taking us out of the things we wanted to run offensively."
When it comes to slowing the pace against an up-tempo opponent, the easiest place to begin is offense. Right from the outset, with 30 seconds on the shot clock each time down the court, disciplined teams have an opportunity to keep an opponent idling at the starting line for essentially half the game.
What makes Rutgers, with Stringer's self-confessed defensive supremacy, a championship contender rather than a championship spoiler is the way the Scarlet Knights manage to control tempo when they don't have the ball. With Essence Carson, Matee Ajavon and Epiphanny Prince controlling the perimeter and Kia Vaughn holding her own against anyone inside -- or on this night, Rashidat Junaid holding her own when foul trouble limited Vaughn to 26 minutes -- opponents either have to score in transition or get ready to play through five Rutgers defenders and the shot clock on the ensuing half-court set.
At one point in the first half, Maryland point guard Kristi Toliver looked over to the bench to find out what play the Terrapins should run after finally breaking the press and setting up shop in the offensive end.
There were six seconds left on the shot clock.
Where Maryland had success in the first half, eventually building a 33-23 lead at the break, was in creating scoring chances before the Scarlet Knights could clamp down. The Terrapins finished with just 10 fast-break points, but they scored plenty of points in the moments immediately following transition. Not surprisingly, it was a topic of conversation for the home team at halftime.
"[We] played transition defense," Carson said of the biggest difference between the two halves. "That was one thing we were lacking in the first half. We were pretty much even on everything else in the first half, but they were getting their open breaks because we weren't locating their shooters fast enough. We would get back but then we would all be in the paint and they would all be on the outside."
Those opportunities vanished in the second half, and things went rapidly downhill for the Terrapins, who turned the ball over on the first possession after the half, the first possession after the first media timeout of the second half and the first possession after a timeout they called when Junaid cut the lead to two points with just more than nine minutes to play. Overall, Maryland turned the ball over 20 times and finished with 17 fewer field-goal attempts than Rutgers. Not every one of those turnovers was directly attributable to an individual defensive effort, but even the poor passes came from a team desperately trying to pick up the pace and play its style of basketball.
Of course, for all the wonders of Stringer's defense, it doesn't hurt to have a player like Prince to take care of the offense that serves as a necessary interlude between defensive possessions. Continuing a breakout season, the sophomore finished with 22 points, 10 assists and one solitary turnover (15 points and seven assists in the second half) -- the same number of points and one more assist than Toliver had all game.
"She did a tremendous job," Carson said of Prince. "She took the shots that were there, she didn't think about them and she hit the shots when we needed them. That's exactly what we needed."
Next up for Rutgers, which beat George Washington on the road earlier this season, is a trip to Cameron Indoor Stadium for a game against a Duke team that might be more concerned with its current three-game losing streak than with last season's loss to Rutgers in the NCAA Tournament. Showdowns also loom with Tennessee in Knoxville and a Big East home-and-home with Connecticut. But with wins against LSU and Maryland, both built on stopping what seemed unstoppable in Fowles and Maryland's frenetic pace, Stringer's team has set itself up as an early favorite for a No. 1 seed come March.
"[The Terrapins] are playing the best basketball of any team in the country today, and each player is legitimate in their own," Stringer said. "But I think it's a real testimony of our will and our ability and our belief in ourselves ... the way this Scarlet Knights team stepped up and played them straight up."
Slow and steady won the night, and it might yet win the race.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
No. 3 Maryland's perfect season came to an end at the hands of sixth-ranked Rutgers in a game between two teams that excel at two completely different paths to success.