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Illini women one and done in Minneapolis

Mar. 8—MINNEAPOLIS — The Illinois women's basketball team talked in the buildup to the Big Ten tournament about how starting fast would be a key to its chances at a potential deep run this week.

How in their wins, the Illini had used strong first quarters to set the tone for the rest of the game. And how in its losses, Illinois had the opposite happen more often than not.

The start could not have been any better for the Illini on Thursday. But the inconsistencies that have defined the 2023-24 season crept in eventually for Illinois as its second-round matchup with Maryland developed.

Missed shots. Turnovers. Poor rebounding. Defensive lapses.

The Terrapins took full advantage, sending Illinois home for a second straight year at the Big Ten tournament with eighth-seeded Maryland rallying for a 75-65 win against the ninth-seeded Illini at the Target Center.

"A great start. ... Executed on both ends of the floor, (and) did a great job in terms of game plan and execution of that," Illinois coach Shauna Green said. "Then, obviously we knew Maryland's really good, so they're going to make a run.

"But then I thought the difference-maker was they had 24 points off of turnovers and (offensive) rebounds. ... Give Maryland credit. They made plays when they had to. What I've always loved about Brenda (Frese's) teams are their toughness, and their physicality and just that grit they have to them. You've got to have that. You've got to have that for 40 minutes. You especially need it in March, and I thought at times we just have to be more consistent with that."

Illinois (14-15) led 24-10 after the first quarter, making 11 of its 16 shot attempts (68.8 percent) in the opening 10 minutes. But Maryland (18-12), which couldn't afford a loss with Frese's team on the NCAA tournament bubble, outscored the Illini 65-41 in the final 30 minutes.

The Terrapins, who trailed 37-35 at halftime and still found themselves down 50-44 midway through the third quarter, closed out the third on an 11-0 run.

Shyanne Sellers got loose in the third quarter for seven points, including a go-ahead 18-foot jumper with two minutes, 32 seconds left in the third quarter, that staked Maryland to a 51-50 lead.

An advantage Maryland would never relinquish.

What the Terrapins did at the other end of the floor fueled their comeback, though, with Maryland creating contested shots in the paint and the Illini guards forcing up attempts.

"When you look at the stats in that first quarter and just us not guarding, I really thought we were going to play more zone in this game because we had the first two games (in the regular season)," Frese said after the Terrapins improved to 17-0 all-time against Illinois, with Frese on the Maryland sideline for all but two of those wins. "I thought the switch defensively when we went all predominantly man, we just got a lot more aggressive, dialed up and made them have to take difficult shots. I thought it started with just getting a lot more aggressive on the defensive end."

Green was also quick to acknowledge the shift the Terrapins made.

The first half was a lot of Illinois finding holes in the Maryland zone. That saw center Camille Hobby, along with guards Makira Cook and Genesis Bryant, combine for 30 of the Illini's 37 points with the 6-foot-3 Hobby delivering an efficient 10 points in the opening 20 minutes by finishing 5 of 7 from the floor.

Bryant, Cook and Hobby were a collective 6 of 23 from the floor in the second half (26.1 percent), with Adalia McKenzie scoreless for a second straight game after the junior guard missed all six of her attempts.

"We were running the same stuff (in the second half) to try to get the ball inside," Green said. "They do a really good job of trying to front the post and take the post away, and then they bring in with the help side.

"When you're not hitting threes, they're able to collapse in even more. I thought it was more an adjustment they made of doing a better job defensively because we were trying to get the ball inside to (Kendall Bostic) and Hobby, and there's a couple times our guards didn't get the ball into them, as well, and I told them that. The game plan didn't change in terms of that. Maryland made an adjustment in how they were defending us."

Still, the Illini had a chance late to keep its hopes alive at the Big Ten tournament. Even after Maryland surged to what was its largest lead of the game after Bri McDaniel, who produced a game-high 20 points and pulled down 10 rebounds for a double-double, scored a second-chance layup to put the Terps ahead 63-55 with 6:30 left.

Illinois strung together a few stops and then converted back-to-back fast-break layups. The Illini appeared to have the opportunity to close their deficit to one point. But Bryant was called for an offensive foul, negating a layup and possible three-point play, after Illinois had cut its deficit to 63-59.

Green protested the call. To no avail. The charge call on Bryant with 3:56 to go in the fourth quarter stalled the Illini.

And Maryland finished the win by going 9 of 14 from the free-throw line in the closing minutes even after Sellers was relegated to the bench for the final three and a half minutes after fouling out.

Despite a losing record, Illinois — which had Cook produced a team-high 17 points, five rebounds and eight assists to go with Hobby's 16 points and seven rebounds — could still play in a postseason tournament. The 32-team Women's Basketball Invitation Tournament, now in its first year of existence, is the most likely possibility.

But a disappointing end to a season that started with Illinois ranked in the AP Top 25 preseason poll for the first time since 1999 won't see the Illini back in the NCAA tournament for a second straight season. Whether this team gets to play another game weighed heavily on Green after her team was one-and-done in Minneapolis.

"That's something that I've got to watch and think this through," the Illini coach said. "We've got to really just take a look in the mirror at all of us, and like, 'What do we really want out of this postseason if we have the opportunity to play in it? Do we want to go and try to, if it's the WBIT or whatever, make a run at that? What's our mindset?' So I think right now, we need a couple days to just reflect and to watch and to see, and then we'll address that as we move forward."