Two minutes into Sunday afternoon’s Big Ten Conference opener, Maryland’s Shyanne Sellers watched an errant Northwestern jumper fall between her and a Wildcats player and decided it wasn’t too early to fight for something. With the ball firmly stuck among four palms, the junior guard swung her arms right, then left, then right again as if the official’s whistle hadn’t sounded (it had) and the possession arrow didn’t face the Terrapins’ direction (it did).
From the sideline, Maryland Coach Brenda Frese barked at Sellers, “Get that s—!”
After a prolonged struggle, the ball was hers and Frese — who has called for her players to be more aggressive and confident — was clearly satisfied as she uncrossed her arms from her Christmas sweater to clap. Plays like that, with the support of teammates who followed suit in a dominant second half, would do as the Terps won their fifth straight game in a 71-58 dispatching of the Wildcats.
Sellers’s final line: 13 points, 10 assists, eight rebounds, five steals and two blocks, with myriad deflections unaccounted for. She played 38 minutes, significantly more than anyone else.
“Shy played like she practiced all week,” Frese said.
“[This season, I] know when to be aggressive and know when to just contain,” she said.
Sellers, though, didn’t arrive in College Park as that sort of ballhawk. Coming out of Aurora High in Ohio, the nation’s No. 22 recruit per ESPN was considered an offensive force but a defensive project. Playing alongside three all-Americans, when she had to defend just to get on the court, changed that.
“It’s just kind of been my motto and my identity ever since,” Sellers said.
Sellers and the Terps (7-3, 1-0) entered Big Ten play in a more precarious situation than they’re used to, having suffered blowout losses to then-No. 6 South Carolina, then-No. 8 Connecticut and then-No. 23 Washington State to tumble out of the rankings.
The Terps trended up over the past two weeks, drawing contact and grabbing rebounds at a rate that made them so often dominant under Frese. Still, they had done so against four mid- and low-major programs. Northwestern (3-6, 0-1), even after a last-place finish in the conference last year, offered more friction.
“Every team has improved [in the Big Ten],” Frese said. “It’s the best conference in the country.”
Maryland’s defensive irritation took hold at tip-off. Full-court pressure irked the Wildcats and, in conjunction with balanced scoring inside — all seven Maryland players who touched the court in the first quarter scored — provided a 22-14 lead heading into the second.
But the effort wavered when graduate wing Brinae Alexander and sophomore guard Bri McDaniel sat with foul trouble. The Terps allowed more open looks, and Casey Harter’s three-pointer — the first by either team — tied the score at 27 with 3:26 left in the half.
“Any time effort and energy is down, that’s an area for me that we can always control,” Frese said.
A couple of tough layups kept Maryland from entirely sputtering out, but cold outside shooting hurt as Northwestern evened the score again on another Harter three with 24 seconds left. After that, Sellers found the ball in her hands and the clock ticking down. Though she converted the Terps’ first three-pointer at the buzzer for a crowd-pleasing 36-33 lead, she jogged to the locker room expressionless.
“[That was] mainly because I was disappointed in our first half,” she said. “I just felt like we weren’t playing the way we needed to. Thank God that shot went in, but we were [about to] go into halftime tied, and that didn’t really sit right with me.”
“First possession of the third quarter, we knew we had to step it up,” junior forward Allie Kubek said.
The Terps forced a shot-clock violation on Northwestern’s first possession of the third quarter as it began the period on a 12-2 run, improving their ball movement while flustering any off-ball effectiveness by the Wildcats on the other end. Northwestern shot 18.8 percent in the third quarter and trailed by as many as 21 points in the fourth.
Kubek led the Terps with 17 points. Graduate wing Jakia Brown-Turner (13 points) finished in double digits for the seventh time this season as the Terps posted a season low in turnovers (11) and their second-best mark on the offensive glass (19 rebounds). Melannie Daley led Northwestern with 14 points.
Maryland has a long wait until it faces another opponent that is currently ranked — No. 12 Ohio State visits Jan. 17 — but will host Towson at 11 a.m. Tuesday.
“It’s super important to be able to set the tone for conference play,” Frese said, referencing a 90-67 loss to Nebraska in last year’s opener. “There’s not going to be any easy nights in this league.”