No. 4 seed Maryland's 72-52 NCAA tournament first round win over No. 13 seed Quinnipiac had a shaky start, but ended up being a picture perfect game in at least one respect: the two players the Terps rely on most had pretty much the best combined statistical performance they are capable of having.
Maryland's two-time reigning ACC Player of the Year Alyssa Thomas and senior leader Tianna Hawkins combined for 52 points and 29 rebounds Saturday at Comcast Center in College Park, Md., both setting personal NCAA tournament bests in points, as well as achieving their season best scoring output as a tandem.
Thomas' 29 points was just three shy of her career high in any game, something she achieved when she dropped 32 in a historic triple-double performance in the second round of the ACC tournament back on March 8. In addition Hawkins' 16 rebounds against the Bobcats marked a NCAA tournament high for her in what was her (and Thomas') seventh big dance contest.
Seeing Thomas and Hawkins play so well together has become the norm for Terp fans this year, though, as the scoring numbers indicate, this combined performance may be their best thus far. And that type of display coming in the first round of the NCAA tournament is significant for a team that will likely only go as far as their two stars carry them.
Maryland also initially needed those efforts by Thomas and Hawkins just to comeback and grab the lead before halftime against Quinnipiac.
Bobcat reserve Ellen Cannon gained confidence early when she knocked down her first three of day at the 16:08 mark of the first half. That was Quinnipiac's second field goal and made the score 6-5 in favor of Maryland. It set the tone for more or less the rest of the half - a statement that said 'we're going to hang around in this one.'
A little bit later in the opening period, the Bobcats went on a 9-0 run that consisted of a Lisa Lebak three at 11:30 remaining, followed by a pair of threes by the red hot Cannon at 10:56 and 9:41. Cannon came in averaging just 14.6 minutes and 3.9 points per game, but was third on the Bobcats in three point shooting percentage at 39.2 percent (1 make a game and 2.5 attempts per game).
Cannon would not score the rest of the game and Quinnipiac, who entered averaging 7 threes a game (30th in the nation) and shooting 35.2 percent from beyond the arc (23rd in the nation) would finish with a decent 8-27 (29.6 percent) effort from long range. But it was not enough to beat the physical advantages the Terps had.
Lebak and Cannon's 9-0 run gave the Bobcats a seven-point lead that was extended to nine twice. But Maryland remained relatively calm and put together a 9-0 run of their own from 6:56 to 2:22 remaining in the first. A clutch Tianna Hawkins three at 5:11 tied the score at 21 all and was really the only clutch outside shot the Terps needed all game.
Thomas also contributed by scoring the first basket of the 9-0 run, as well as 8 of Maryland's first 14 points to prevent things from getting out of hand. After the game she said she was not surprised by how physical Quinnipiac played and that she had been ready for a battle.
"We saw how amped up they were for this game," Thomas said. "They're a very good team and we knew they were going to come out and give us their best punch."
"We started off kind of sluggish," Hawkins said. "I think once we got the feel for the game, everything started to fall into place."
After Tianna's three, Maryland went on to lead, 27-23, at the break and once they got things got under control and truly started to take over in the second half, there was no need to take risky shots. Instead, the Terps continued to dominate the points in the paint battle, which they won 24-4 in the second and 46-14 overall.
Quinnipiac's tallest player is forward Camryn Warner at 6-2, meaning all three of the post players in Maryland's rotation have at least an inch on her. So it's not surprising that the Terps had their way inside and went on to win comfortably after Cannon's threes momentarily had the Comcast crowd feeling restless. However, head coach Brenda Frese knows her team, which shot 2 for 13 (15.4 percent) from 3-point range Saturday, may need some more versatile scoring options to win against bigger and better defenses.
"I definitely think we can improve from the perimeter," Frese said. "But if something is working for us we are going to continue to go to it. And that has been our strength - being able to go inside and crash the glass. But no question, if you want to continue to advance you have to be able to shoot the ball better. I know we will come out and be ready to shoot the ball with confidence."
With No. 5 seed Michigan State coming up for the Terps in the second round, things may be a little bit more even down low. The Spartans are the 18th best rebounding team in the country and have Becca Mills (6-4), Annalise Pickrel (6-3) and Jasmine Hines (6-3) available to potentially matchup against Alicia DeVaughn (6-4), Malina Howard (6-4) and Hawkins (6-3) on Maryland's side.
MSU pulled out a 55-47 victory over No. 12 seed Marist in a game that started right after Maryland/Quinnipiac on Saturday at Comcast. They will face the Terps on Monday at 7 p.m.
Meanwhile, for the Bobcats the program's first ever trip to the big dance came to an end Saturday. But junior forward Brittany McQuain believes Quinnipiac will find their way back to the tournament.
"[Thomas and Hawkins] are great players," McQuain said. "Thomas is outstanding. She is going to do great things I'm sure. Being on the floor with talent like that is kind of humbling. We did extremely well in the NEC not losing a game and then coming here and playing against a really good ACC team really open our eyes a little bit. We can do this again, I have no doubt in my mind."
"Could not be more proud of how the Bobcats represented Quinnipiac University today," Bobcat head coach Tricia Fabbri said. "Played great, played gritty. Had a little bit of a lid on the bucket in the second half. Couldn't get any back-to-back buckets to gain some momentum. But these young ladies represented the university and the program really well today and we competed against a great program like Maryland."