College Park, MD—In college basketball there’s gritty, and then there’s UConn vs. Maryland gritty.
Tonight’s battle of the unbeatens was no different, between the #1 and #4 ranked teams. It was a contest that felt like it had playoff implications, and at the very least felt like a playoff preview. And to say that it was intriguing? Well, that would be an understatement.
It was a game where UConn star Katie Lou Samuelson almost didn’t play due to illness, and then exploded for 23 points.
And a game where a Maryland freshman point guard Destiny Slocum had a coming out party on the largest possible national stage.
Ultimately, UConn extended their winning streak to 87 games with an 87-81 win over Maryland in College Park, but both teams proved why they are in line to win it all come March.
Just before tip-off, Samuelson was on the bench vomiting into a trashcan. Following the win, head coach Geno Auriemma said he didn’t even expect her to make it on to the court when he saw her in the locker room pre-game. But what did Samuelson do?
She dropped 23 points on Maryland’s court on 8-17 shooting. Oh, and 12 of those 23 points came in the third quarter alone.
"It's kind of easier in games, adrenaline gets you through anything that's going on,” Samuelson said when asked about feeling under the weather.
“[T]here were moments when I was a little tired, but overall it was just the flow of the game and things that were happening. Our team was doing really good stuff that got me excited and hyped up, so it got me through."
Arguably, Samuelson’s explosion in the third quarter sealed the game for the Huskies. After a slow start, the Terps fought back in the second quarter to pull within five for a 36-31 halftime score. But behind Samuelson’s shooting, UConn’s lead quickly ballooned to 19 points.
Maryland made a valiant effort to fight back in the final quarter, but UConn’s lead in the third proved too much to overcome. But despite the loss, it wasn’t all bad news for Maryland.
Maryland is at their best when they play fast. For a team that averaged 91 points coming into tonight, Slocum is the perfect floor general for them because of her up-tempo style of play.
On top of that, she proved that when the pressure is on against the number one team in the country, she can rise to the occasion rather than shrink away from the spotlight.
As far as her stat line, Slocum dropped 23 points of her own, and added in seven assists and four rebounds. But the stats don’t tell the entire story.
In the fourth quarter, Slocum nailed three of her five three pointers to help keep her team in the game, all with under five minutes left to play. And these weren’t your standard three-pointers, either. They were all contested, and likely all NBA range.
“Age is just a number and class means nothing,” Maryland head coach Brenda Frese said about Slocum’s performance.
“[E]verybody got to witness tonight, what makes her so special. She is poised beyond her years. Her spirit and her energy are contagious. When you have that kind of energy you are able to feed off of it amongst your teammates. She has had a lot of experience and is just poised beyond her years.”
Slocum can give opposing teams fits because of her unpredictability. She is incredibly skilled at reading the floor, and of course has speed. Yet at the same time, she can pull up and nail a dagger three-pointer.
This makes it hard for opposing defenses to know when to bring an extra help defender onto Slocum. Even if help defense arrives in time, she will likely capitalize by finding an open teammate for a wide-open look.
Tonight’s showdown really showed that against the top competition, both Maryland and UConn have players that can rise to the occasion, no matter what the circumstances. And if that’s any indication of what March will bring? It only means good things for women’s basketball.