NASSAU, Bahamas — The contrast was impossible to ignore as N.C. State warmed up in waves inside the intimate setting that was the Baha Mar Convention Center. A handful of players for the No. 5 team in the country jogged from sideline to sideline while another group shot at the rim.
On the opposite end of the floor, No. 2 Maryland barely had enough bodies to get through a layup line.
The Terrapins were ridiculously shorthanded in the Baha Mar Hoops Pink Flamingo Championship opener on Thursday, but even the availability of Diamond Miller, Katie Benzan and Faith Masonius probably wouldn’t have been enough to offset a 78-60 loss. The loss was the worst since getting bombarded on the road by Northwestern, 81-58, on Dec. 31, 2019.
The locale was a bit different for a matchup between a pair of top five teams. The court was built in the middle of a dimly lit ballroom with metal bleachers installed on one side of the room opposite an orange and white stage with teal curtains that held an aged scoreboard that would have been at home in the movie “Hoosiers.”
“When the fans started doing little chants and banging on the bleachers, I definitely felt like I was in an AAU tournament,” N.C. State forward Elissa Cunane said. “I think our team brought the juice themselves. But also we had a ton of fans out there. Maryland has a lot and a lot of N.C. State people came here.
“We knew it was a top five matchup, so we were prepared no matter what the setting was.”
Some of the luster of the game was lost with Maryland down two starters in Miller and Benzan and a key reserve in Masonius. The Terps had just seven players available — “The sensational seven,” Angel Reese called them.
Miller has been dealing with a sore right knee since before the season, but returned to play limited minutes in the last two games. She left the 79-76 win over Baylor when she crumpled to the floor with the knee bothering her, but Coach Brenda Frese said there wasn’t any additional damage. However, the all-Big Ten guard was on the sideline in street clothes Thursday and is considered doubtful for Saturday against No. 7 Stanford. Benzan and Masonius didn’t even travel as they continue to deal with undisclosed illnesses. Benzan, the nation’s No. 1 three-point shooter last season, has missed the last two games and Masonius has been out four straight.
“The first half, they punched first,” Frese said. “They were very, very aggressive. I think it put us on our heels. There’s no question how good N.C. State is, just such a deep team. Obviously, for us to come in here without five players and two that are starters for us, I love the fact, given what we didn’t have, just the fight that we had in the second half.
“But we talked about it. It takes a 40-minute game and if we would have played like we did in the second half, it would have been a much more competitive game.”
The Wolfpack had no mercy for the wounded Terrapins and came out firing from the opening tip. N.C. State pushed the ball in transition to keep Maryland on its heels and attacked the basket at every opportunity. N.C. State shot 61.1% in the first half and scored 32 points in the paint. Maryland trailed 49-27 at halftime and the game was essentially over.
Frese was happy with the way her team responded in the second half, but the 22-point halftime deficit was too much to overcome.
Reese set a career high for the third time this season with 24 points to go along with nine rebounds. She was the lone Terp to really get anything going consistently. Ashley Owusu finished with 14 points, five assists and three rebounds while dealing with cramps down the stretch. Freshman Shyanne Sellers scored 12 points along with four rebounds and three assists in her second career start. Chloe Bibby played all 40 minutes and Taisiya Kozlova played a career-high 24 minutes.
Cunane led N.C. State with 20 points on 8-for-9 shooting and 10 rebounds while Jakia Brown-Turner added 12 points and 11 rebounds. Diamond Johnson tallied 17 points, eight rebounds and five assists off the bench.
“We definitely want to push it,” N.C. State coach Wes Moore said. “. . . We definitely wanted to be aggressive.”
Here’s what else you need to know from Thursday’s game:
Too many 3s
Frese lamented the fact that Maryland was 5 for 24 from behind the arc without Benzan in the lineup. She didn’t want so many attempts without their best shooter. Some were forced, but some kick-outs to open shooters didn’t fall as usual. Collins (season-low two points) and Bibby (eight points) were a combined 2 for 13 on three-point attempts.
“I thought we settled,” Frese said. “I thought we got tired.”
Not only did the Wolfpack push the pace and attack the rim, but they were physically aggressive on both ends of the floor. They outrebounded the Terps 47-34 and Maryland was visibly frustrated at times. Defensively, N.C. State got into the bodies of Maryland shooters and hounded those that tried to drive to the hoop. Even the typically reserved Owusu seemed to take issue with some of the physical play that was allowed.
“I thought they were way more aggressive,” Frese said. “I thought our trans D really hurt us in the first half. They got way too many layups and possessions in that first half.”
Reese added, “They punched first and we will learn from that, of course. But I feel like everybody gave everything they could. The seven that played gave everything they could in the second half.”
No answer for the bench
Johnson was an enormous problem for the Terps as she came in the game with instant offense and made plays regularly. She blew past defenders to get to the rim and buried three triples. Johnson also facilitated when in the game and got good looks for teammates.
“I think she’s doing a great job looking for her shot selection, but also looking to pass it,” Cunane said. “She also gets [offensive] boards, which is huge. I think her coming in and playing with us, there’s no let off when we sub in and she’s a part of that.”
Moore added, “I say we’ve got six starters.”