HARTFORD, Conn. -- With several players sporting bright yellow laces and red socks rising from red sneakers, Maryland's players looked a little like boxers entering the ring before Monday's game.
What followed was the basketball equivalent of a bout going to the judges, Connecticut outpointing Maryland 63-48 at the XL Center to maintain its perfect record and retain its standing in the heavyweight division of women's basketball.
It was a win, but it wasn't a knockout, a wearying, lean-on-the-ropes slog that might benefit Connecticut down the road.
"To win a game like that, I think is really a good sign for us," Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said. "Because we didn't win it the way [where] you just run up and down and make a bunch of 3s and steal the ball and make layups. We had to earn it. We had to beat a very, very physical, tough team."
The first meeting between programs responsible for three of the past seven national championships provided little satisfaction and less entertainment than one hoped when the schedule came out. It was physical and defensive, as good games can be, but it was also sloppy and grinding, as December games can be. More than anything, it left a desire to see them play again when one is further along in its development and the other is healthier.
Unfortunately, only one of those can happen between now and New Orleans. But if undermanned Maryland didn't do quite enough to earn a split decision, it did perhaps do enough to change opinions.
"Come on," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said as she sat down for her news conference after the loss. "How many of you didn't think we had a chance in this game?"
Playing its first full game since losing starting guard Lauren Mincy to a season-ending knee injury, which followed an earlier season-ending injury to projected starting point guard Brene Moseley, Maryland looked the part early against Connecticut. The Terrapins turned over the ball twice in the first 36 seconds against full-court pressure. By the time the game was 12 minutes old, the visitors had more turnovers (13) than field goal attempts (12). The turnovers slowed, freshman guard Chloe Pavlech deserving credit, but didn't stop. When the Terps did get shots, they rarely fell, the team shooting 33 percent in the first half and only marginally better at 37 percent in the second half.
Kelly Faris was at the center of the defensive efforts thwarting Maryland. If ever there was a player born to star in a game in which the points column seemed to matter less than rebounds, steals and stops, it is Faris The senior finished with eight points, seven rebounds, seven assists and eight steals, leading Auriemma to sarcastically note that there is a reason the Big East coaches who continually leave her off all-conference teams have the records they have, while his team, with Faris on the court as much as humanly possible, has the record it has during her time in uniform. She either scored or assisted on almost half of her team's field goals.
"She is just the life of our team, offensively and defensively," said Connecticut's Stefanie Dolson on a night when her team-high 14 points was not the most important line. "It's amazing how many steals she can get and how many turnovers she can force the other team to have. She doesn't talk a lot, but just watching her -- anyone who watches her play just knows how hard she works. She just really get us going."
The unfortunate recipient of much of Faris' defensive handiwork, Maryland All-American Alyssa Thomas struggled throughout the game. She finished with eight turnovers and shot just 2 of 12 from the floor. It's not a coincidence that 15 of her 25 turnovers this season came in Maryland's two losses, first at Saint Joseph's and now at Connecticut.
The Terrapins got a strong game from Tianna Hawkins, who although she fell short of her season scoring average of nearly 20 points per game, was one of the better players on the court with 14 points and 10 rebounds. But Thomas, who can score like a star, rebound like a big and handle the ball like a point guard, is the key to the team.
Keeping someone who can do so much from trying to do too much is the challenge for Maryland moving forward.
"Because her will to win and the will to compete is so high, and she knows that this team needs her to do more given the situation that we're in," Frese explained. "So she's finding that line. It's difficult right now because she had more around her last season. It's going to be a delicate balance that she's going to have to work through."
That is the difference between these two teams now.
Connecticut didn't need Breanna Stewart to be perfect. The freshman struggled for long stretches, one turnover late in the game earning a hands-on-head pirouette from her coach, but she also scored seven consecutive points and assisted on a 3-pointer in a 10-0 run that built the lead to double digits late in the first half, a margin that never again shrank below seven points. When Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis was forced out of the game at halftime with what was termed a hip contusion by the team, Brianna Banks stepped in with big minutes in the second half, including a 3-pointer to quell Maryland's best run.
Maryland's margin for error is gone with just seven players in the rotation. It's dangerous territory for a program as good as this one to start looking toward moral victories. But the physical price Connecticut paid to get a real victory suggests Monday night was just that.
The Terrapins can still take a lot out of even one of the best teams.
"I've been a part of a lot of special teams and games, so there's no question that I felt like we could come in here and we could win this game," Frese said. "I felt like from our team's end, it doesn't matter the number of players that you have, it's about how hard you compete and how hard you work. This team, as we continue on, has got a really bright future."