From the earliest stages of Maryland women’s basketball’s game against South Carolina last season, Gamecocks forward A’ja Wilson made her presence felt.
In the final four minutes of the first quarter, she scored six points and grabbed a pair of rebounds to help push South Carolina’s lead to 16 points after 10 minutes. With the Terps fighting to get back in the game, Wilson found her way to the line and drained eight straight free throws in the second quarter alone.
Wilson’s 32-point, 12-rebound night — one of the biggest factors in Maryland’s 94-86 defeat — continues to dog coach Brenda Frese, more than a year later.
“I still have nightmares about A’ja Wilson,” Frese said Friday.
While Frese has had fewer sleepless nights in the buildup to the teams’ 2018 matchup — Wilson graduated and was selected with the top pick of this year’s WNBA draft — the Gamecocks still return four starters from a team that finished 29-7.
For No. 9 Maryland to pick up a road victory against No. 10 South Carolina on Sunday, the team must come out strong and establish itself early against a balanced attack. And in a raucous environment, they won’t be able to afford an early deficit again.
“Similar to our team, when you watch us it can be a different person every night,” Frese said. “They’re very talented, they have a ton of depth. They play extremely well at home, so we have to have that mentality to lock in.”
While the Gamecocks have put up a combined 163 points in their first two games, guards Te’a Cooper and Bianca Jackson are the only players averaging double figures in scoring. Eight different players have tallied at least six points a game.
Preseason All-SEC forward Alexis Jennings — who bullied Maryland for 12 points and 13 boards last year — is dealing with an injury and just began participating in full practices this week. Jennings notched eight points and five rebounds in her first game of the season Thursday, a 69-57 victory over Clemson, but her status for Sunday is unknown.
To quell South Carolina’s spread-out scoring options, the Terps must continue to play with the same connectivity on the defensive end they showcased in their 69-30 squashing of George Washington on Wednesday. Frese’s squad held the Colonials to 17.5 percent shooting and picked up 14 steals.
That won’t be an easy task in Colonial Life Arena, where the Gamecocks led the nation with 13,239 fans per game in 2017-18, including seven of the 10 highest-attended contests in the country.
“We’re ready to go,” guard Channise Lewis said. “Going into South Carolina, it’s going to be a loud atmosphere, so we have to make sure we’re all together, speaking loud and on the same page.”
The 2017 matchup looked like a rout at first, with the Gamecocks’ advantage ballooning to 26 points in the second half. The Terps wound up fighting back to trail by three, but their early missteps were too much to overcome.
This time, it’ll be imperative for Maryland to have a strong start against one of the best teams in the country.
“Punching first is definitely a big thing,” guard Blair Watson said. “Trying to just take the life out of them early and get going right away, because once they’re in it, they’re in it. And it’ll be harder to come back.”
After a 2-for-16 performance from three-point range against George Washington, Maryland must get production from sharpshooting guards Taylor Mikesell and Sara Vujacic to soften up the heart of South Carolina’s defense. The Gamecocks held Clemson to a 32.9 percent clip from the field Thursday.
If Maryland has any chance of toppling a top-10 opponent in one of the most hostile environments in the country, it’ll need to put together the best 40 minutes of its season. And against weaker foes in their first three games this year, the Terps haven’t yet displayed the game-long consistency such a feat will require.
Still, Frese is keeping her expectations high for Sunday, hoping that her squad will come out on top in the Wilson-less rematch.
“I know we’ll be ready,” Frese said. “They’re excited about this next game, next opportunity. For us, it’s just continuing to grow and get better every time we step on the floor.”