An un­ex­pected exit

Mary­land women stunned by Oregon in NCAA tour­na­ment, 77-63

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - jerry.brewer@wash­post.com For more by Jerry Brewer, visit wash­ing­ton­post.com/brewer.

bridge­port, conn. — It ended with Des­tiny Slocum drib­bling out the clock, drib­bling out an era. Mary­land’s fresh­man point guard felt help­less. She felt an­gry. In the fi­nal 10 sec­onds of a game that had been de­cided, Slocum could do lit­tle be­sides say farewell to a 32-3 sea­son, to a much-de­sired Elite Eight matchup with Con­necti­cut and to two spe­cial se­niors who craved a more glo­ri­ous exit.

In those 10 meta­phoric sec­onds, stew­ard­ship of the Mary­land women’s bas­ket­ball pro­gram trans­ferred from Sha­tori Walker-Kim­brough and Bri­onna Jones to Slocum and the rest of a pre­co­cious ros­ter. The mo­ment couldn’t have been more bit­ter­sweet. For as promis­ing as Mary­land’s fu­ture re­mains, its present con­cluded too soon Satur­day at Web­ster Bank Arena. The third-seeded Ter­rap­ins suc­cumbed to a young and care­free un­der­dog, 10thseeded Oregon, in a 77-63 loss in the NCAA tour­na­ment round of 16.

“The thing that re­ally sucks that was go­ing through my head at that last minute is that we sent them out this way,” Slocum said of the se­niors. “And you know, it sucks when you have two amaz­ing peo­ple and two amaz­ing play­ers, and you know they de­serve so much more.

And, I mean, we clawed, and we fought for them, and I wish we could have done more. And that was the thing that was go­ing through my head at those last sec­onds.”

Mary­land lost the chance to have a grander tran­si­tion. This team was deep, and it had an im­pres­sive blend of ex­pe­ri­ence and gifted youth, with two all­time se­nior greats lead­ing a group that in­cluded the sport’s No. 1 fresh­man re­cruit­ing class. It looked like a Fi­nal Four setup. The Ter­rap­ins stayed in the top six in the polls all sea­son, and en­ter­ing the tour­na­ment, they had lost only a close home game to Con­necti­cut and a shootout at Ohio State.

But when the bracket gods cursed them with a No. 3 seed in Con­necti­cut’s re­gion, the thought of a Fi­nal Four or ti­tle-game re­match against the Huskies turned into an Elite Eight sce­nario. But for the sec­ond straight year, Mary­land left the tour­na­ment ear­lier than ex­pected, fall­ing to an­other lower-seeded, un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated Pa­cific-12 team with dou­ble-digit losses.

A year ago, sev­enth-seeded Wash­ing­ton up­set Mary­land in Col­lege Park. This time, the Ducks elim­i­nated the Ter­rap­ins in the Sweet 16, con­trol­ling the game from the mid­dle of the sec­ond quar­ter un­til the end, forc­ing Mary­land to play at an un­com­fort­ably slow pace and tak­ing ad­van­tage of their size, length and shoot­ing.

It was al­most the per­fect game plan against Mary­land. The Terps have strug­gled de­fend­ing some great shoot­ers; Oregon made 6 of 15 three-point­ers, with three apiece from guards Lexi Bando and Sab­rina Ionescu. The Terps dom­i­nate op­po­nents on the boards, av­er­ag­ing 14 more re­bounds per game; Oregon was out­re­bounded by just one. And Mary­land’s pres­sure de­fense barely fazed Ionescu, the fresh­man guard who plays like a se­nior. She fin­ished with 21 points, seven as­sists and six re­bounds.

In ad­di­tion, the Ducks had the size to bother Jones in­side, and their de­fense ex­e­cuted a strat­egy to chase the Ter­rap­ins off the three­p­oint line and make them take con­tested shots. Mary­land missed all six of its shots beyond the arc.

“I’ll tell you this: Oregon is for real,” Mary­land Coach Brenda Frese said. “I thought they were sen­sa­tional. I thought they punched first. I thought they were fear­less, ag­gres­sive, con­fi­dent, re­ally pun­ished us in terms of any mis­takes, any break­downs that we would have.”

Frese was adamant about not let­ting the loss di­min­ish the ca­reers of Jones and Walker-Kim­brough. They went to two Fi­nal Fours, swept the Big Ten reg­u­lar sea­son and tour­na­ment cham­pi­onships three times and won 125 games. It’s a le­gacy that can’t be erased, and it’s a stan­dard that Slocum and her su­per class will be hard­pressed to match, let alone ex­ceed.

Still, for all the joy and great mem­o­ries, Mary­land left a few tour­na­ment vic­to­ries on the ta­ble the past two years. And while you can feel free to lament easy shots that Mary­land rushed and silly turnovers that it com­mit­ted (21 on Satur­day) and an over­all in­abil­ity to ex­e­cute when forced to play a more me­thod­i­cal style, the macro is­sue is some­thing the Ter­rap­ins can’t con­trol. It’s the im­prov­ing par­ity in women’s bas­ket­ball.

On Satur­day, play­ing on the un­der­card of what felt like the Con­necti­cut In­vi­ta­tional, it seemed like an odd place to wit­ness an ex­am­ple of the sport’s par­ity. But on the same day that Con­necti­cut beat UCLA to win its 110th straight game, Oregon Coach Kelly Graves led his team, his 13loss Ducks, past a peren­nial top-five Mary­land squad that may have had the best chance to beat the Huskies this sea­son.

The story now shifts to Graves, whose wild and thrilling ca­reer as an NCAA tour­na­ment up­set king con­tin­ues. Through him, you can track how much more bal­anced women’s bas­ket­ball has be­come — with the ex­cep­tion of Con­necti­cut’s dom­i­nance. In his ca­reer, Graves has an 11-8 tour­na­ment record de­spite be­ing a dou­ble-digit seed in seven of his nine ap­pear­ances. He has led teams to four Sweet 16 berths. This is his sec­ond Elite Eight ap­pear­ance, both with dou­bledigit seeds. In 2011, he led Gonzaga to a re­gional fi­nal as a No. 11 seed.

“I al­ways say a good team with noth­ing to lose is a dan­ger­ous team,” Graves said.

Oregon fin­ished 4-27 just four years ago un­der for­mer coach Paul West­head. Now it’s liv­ing off its own well­re­garded fresh­man class and putting the ball in the hands of Ionescu, a top-five na­tional re­cruit. She was the best player on the court Satur­day.

Dor­mant big-con­fer­ence pro­grams are awak­en­ing. Mid-ma­jors are ris­ing, too. Last year, Wash­ing­ton and Syra­cuse ad­vanced to their first Fi­nal Fours. This year, Oregon and No. 12 Quin­nip­iac made it to the Sweet 16.

The game is evolv­ing. As con­sis­tent as Mary­land has been, its dom­i­nance is not as dom­i­nant as it was even three years ago. It needs the Big Ten to be bet­ter over­all, to present more chal­lenges in con­fer­ence sea­son. In the mean­time, it might need to in­crease the strength of its non­con­fer­ence sched­ule from good to ex­tremely chal­leng­ing.

Those Fi­nal Fours that Mary­land seemed en­ti­tled to make are be­com­ing less of a guar­an­tee. And the game still has am­ple room for growth.

“It’s not all the way there, but in terms of the depth, it’s start­ing to get there,” Frese said of the par­ity in the women’s game.

Now, as two all-time play­ers de­part and the sport keeps evolv­ing, Slocum has the ball. She will re­mem­ber the empty feel­ing of drib­bling out a loss.

The much-hyped fu­ture of Mary­land women’s bas­ket­ball is here, but as the Ter­rap­ins and other dom­i­nant pro­grams have been forced to learn, there are no sure things. Well, ex­cept for Con­necti­cut.

KATHER­INE FREY/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Se­nior cen­ter Bri­onna Jones had 16 points and 15 re­bounds in the Terps’ Sweet 16 loss.

Jerry Brewer

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