The Maryland women's basketball team is two games away from its third Final Four appearance during the last four years. Getting there will be the hard part.
The third-seeded Terps will have to face an Oregon squad that upset second-seeded Duke March 20 to advance to the school's first Sweet 16. If Maryland vanquishes the Ducks March 25, it will face the UCLA-Connecticut winner in the Bridgeport Regional final at Webster Bank Arena March 27.
"We have the blueprint for the Final Four," senior Maryland guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough said. "And we want to use that to our advantage."
The Terps breezed to victories against Bucknell, 103-61, March 17 and West Virginia, 83-56, March 19 at the Xfinity Center in College Park, Md., to reach the Sweet 16 for the fifth time in the last six years. Maryland, which improved to 32-2 with the lopsided triumphs, is carrying significant momentum into the next round. The Terps are the nation's top scoring team, averaging 90.1 points per game, and have two of the sport's best players in Walker-Kimbrough and senior center Brionna Jones. Their only losses came to Sweet 16 participants Connecticut Dec. 29 and Ohio State Feb. 20.
For the Terps to reach the Final Four, which is scheduled in Dallas, Texas, March 31-April 2, they will first have to defeat a defensive-minded Oregon team that pulled off consecutive upsets against No. 7 Temple, 71-70, and No. 2 Duke, 74-65, in the Durham, N.C. sub-regional. The Ducks, who finished with an 8-10 Pac-12 regular-season record, will bring a 22-13 overall mark into the Sweet 16.
Oregon, which has won four of its last five outings, cemented an NCAA Tournament at-large bid with a strong performance at the Pac-12 Tournament. Head coach Kelly Graves' club, which holds opponents to an average of 65.1 points per game, beat Arizona and Washington to reach the conference title game, where the Ducks lost to Stanford, 71-56.
Oregon and UCLA are among five Pac-12 teams in the Sweet 16, along with league champion Stanford, Washington and Oregon State.
"The Pac-12 was ranked the No. 1 conference in the country this season," said Maryland head coach Brenda Frese, who has guided the Terps to their seventh consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. "You see all the success that they're having. [Oregon is] used to physical, rugged play in the Pac-12, and it's a game that we're going to have to come out and play 40 minutes."
The Ducks, who are in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2004-05 season, are one of the youngest teams in the field. The Oregon starting lineup includes three freshmen, one sophomore and one junior. The Ducks are led by the freshmen duo of 6-foot-4 forward Ruthy Hebard (14.9 points, 8.7 rebounds) and 5-foot-10 guard Sabrina Ionescu (14.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, 5.6 assists). Junior guard Lexi Bando (10.4 points, 2.8 rebounds) is the veteran of the group. Sophomore guard Maite Cazorla (7.9 points, 4.0 assists) and 6-foot-5 freshman forward Mallory McGwire (7.5 points, 4.2 rebounds) have also been steady contributors.
Maryland has two freshmen in its starting lineup. Point guard Destiny Slocum, who has averaged 11.6 points and a team-leading 6.1 assists per game, earned the Big Ten's Freshman of the Year honor. Guard Kaila Charles (9.9 points, 5.6 rebounds) was named to the conference's All-Freshmen Team.
"I've always watched the tournament since I was young and dreamed of playing in it," Charles said. "It is intense, tough and gritty."
But the Terps have a decided edge over Oregon in tournament experience, with their other three starters combining for 11 NCAA appearances. Jones and Walker-Kimbrough will be participating in their fourth NCAA Tournament and have been to the Final Four twice. Junior guard Kristen Confroy (5.2 points, 3.7 rebounds) is playing in the NCAAs for the third time.
The tournament veterans have mentored the sizeable group of younger Terps about the NCAA environment.
"Early on, it was about trying to get them to understand the feeling that we went through last year and how we felt that we let down our seniors," said Jones, referencing Maryland's NCAA second-round loss to Washington in March 2016. "We said that you can't take anything for granted, and you have to play your hardest every game. Having that mindset makes you prepared to fight through anything, which I think we've done all season."
Jones leads the Terps in scoring (20.0 points), rebounding (10.7) and blocks (1.6), and her .698 field-goal percentage is the nation's top mark for the second consecutive year. Walker-Kimbrough, who has added 18.9 points, 3.6 assists and a .533 field-goal percentage, is the fourth-leading scorer in Maryland history with 2,140 points. Both players have been named to the ESPNW All-America team.
A victory against the Ducks would likely bring Maryland a rematch with an undefeated Connecticut team that beat the Terps, 87-81, at the Xfinity Center earlier this season. Connecticut, the four-time defending NCAA champion, is riding an NCAA-record 109-game winning streak that dates to a loss at Stanford in November 2014. The Huskies, who earned the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, are 34-0 entering the Sweet 16. UCLA, their Sweet 16 opponent, will bring a 25-8 mark to Bridgeport.
The Huskies will also have to travel the shortest distance to the Sweet 16 site. The Connecticut campus, in Storrs, is just a 79-mile drive from Bridgeport. The Huskies' large fan base will also comprise most of the crowd in 10,000-seat Webster Bank Arena, which is sold out for all three games.
But Frese believes the competitiveness of the previous game between Connecticut and Maryland built confidence in her team.
"I thought we took a lot of lessons out of that game to help us move forward with the season," Frese said. "We've been led by our two seniors [Jones and Walker-Kimbrough] every single step of the way, and I know it's not going to be any different now. UConn is a dominant team, and they're undefeated for a reason. But we really would love and welcome that matchup."