COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- You know who would have enjoyed watching Maryland and Princeton play?
People in Spokane, which hosts one of the coming week's regionals. People watching one of the other four games going on at the same time on a busy Monday.
Really, anyone who enjoys watching two really good basketball teams go about their business. Or make that one really good team and one championship contender.
The selection committee said with a straight face that the seedings in College Park afforded unbeaten Princeton and first-round opponent Green Bay a spotlight mid-majors rarely receive, never mind that the prize for cannibalizing one of their own was a game against a No. 1 seed in the second round. In the end, by placing a team too good to be in this game here, what the committee really succeeded in doing, unintentionally, was to put a spotlight on Maryland, one that had to some degree eluded the Terrapins during an unbeaten Big Ten season and even here this week.
Princeton put its best foot forward Monday night and challenged Maryland to do better, to be one of the best teams in the country.
As shot after shot dropped through the net, that's exactly what the Terrapins were in an 85-70 win. They played what was one of the best 16 teams in the nation. They were just better.
"We forced them to shoot really well to beat us, and that was our goal going in," Princeton coach Courtney Banghart said. "We were going to make them make shots from the perimeter, 15 feet and out. And man, they shot the ball really well."
No one more than Laurin Mincy, a player whose career has been far from perfect -- to borrow the week's big theme -- because of a body unwilling to cooperate. But in her final game on a court that has at times over the past five years welcomed her and taunted her, Mincy scored 27 points on 9-of-11 shooting and assisted on seven more field goals, all told more than half of Maryland's total in the game. Mincy was, well, without blemish.
"A lot of emotions definitely running wild for me, my last night playing on this floor," said Mincy, who suffered a torn ACL in high school, then again during the 2012-13 season at Maryland and was slow to regain her form a season ago . "I've had a long journey, struggled on this floor -- doing rehab on this floor, trying to get myself back on this floor. Tonight I was feeling it. I was in my zone.
"The basket felt like it was the ocean."
It must have looked like at least the Potomac or Chesapeake Bay to others early on.
"There's no regrets. We had no control. We did everything we possibly could to earn a high seed. So I'm going to talk about with my grandkids the amazing things that happened this year and the amazing team I did it with."" Princeton senior Blake Dietrick
Nothing about the game in the first half quite matched expectations, other than that it was as entertaining as postseason basketball gets. The disparity in height was apparent even before tip, when players shook hands with their counterparts during introductions. First Maryland's Malina Howard towered over Princeton's Annie Tarakchian, then Brionna Jones did the same to Alex Wheatley. But instead of pounding the ball inside or establishing command of the boards, Maryland started taking -- and making -- jump shots. And instead of living on the perimeter, Princeton players found themselves dared to go to the basket off the dribble, Maryland essentially taking away the 3-point line from a team that while not reliant on that shot to the degree of some mid-majors, shot it better than any team.
Back and forth it went, the lead changing hands 13 times in the opening 20 minutes. Princeton wanted to make Maryland shoot the ball from outside. Maryland wanted to make Princeton go to the basket. Right up through Shatori Walker-Kimbrough's cold-blooded jumper from the top of the key with the shot clock winding down at the end of the first half, both teams must have wondered what they signed themselves up for.
Maryland shot 52 percent in the first half. Princeton shot 59 percent.
"They were physical, very aggressive," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. "It was kind of a fun game back and forth because every time we went to a ball screen type of defense, they would counter it with a set. We would change our defense until they could go counter it again, and then we would change it back and forth. Just a really high IQ team and obviously a team that I thought came in with a ton of poise and confidence and belief that they could win this game."
Or as it was experienced from the court ...
"In the first half, when the lead kept changing, every time the crowd roared, that was really, really cool," Princeton's Wheatley said. "That was fun."
At one point in his team's final practice before its first-round game, Green Bay coach Kevin Borseth told his players to remember one important thing about the Tigers. Everything they had done this season, he said, had worked. They would take the court believing that anything they did would be the right thing, that it would work out. When so much of success is mental, that kind of confidence is invaluable.
But if feeling like nothing can go wrong breeds one kind of confidence, knowing what it's like when everything does breeds another.
With a little more than 10 minutes to play in the game, Princeton had trimmed a lead that ballooned minutes earlier to 20 points down to 13 points. Get to single digits with eight or nine minutes on the clock and maybe something could happen. Tierney Pfirman, so important in scoring 11 points in the first-half back-and-forth, finally missed her first shot of the game on a baseline jumper. But Jones collected the offensive rebound and the ball found its way to Mincy in the left corner. She took one jab step forward to try to gain separation from the defender, then another. Then, almost casually, she flicked her wrist and another 3-pointer dropped through the net.
By the time she hit another three minutes later, the lead was 24 points.
For the game, Mincy hit 6 of 7 shots from the 3-point line.
Maryland's greatest asset, if also the reason it is the most anonymous of the No. 1 seeds, is that it has so many assets. Some days it pounds the ball inside to Jones, as it did in the first round. Some days Brown takes over with performances like Monday, when she scored 23 points and added six rebounds and four assists. Other times it's Walker-Kimbrough or surprise contributions from Pfirman, Howard or Kristen Confroy. But this was Mincy's turn, not by design but by circumstance.
One of the scary thing for the rest of the country is that except for Mincy, Maryland will return intact next season. It is a young team, which means few of her teammates have been witness to all that Mincy, one of the top recruits in the nation when she signed with Maryland, endured to get to Monday night. The one who has been with her the longest and endured many rehab sessions with her as a result of her own injuries is redshirt junior Brene Moseley.
She knew what she was watching was more than a display of good shooting.
"To see her evolve to today, I'm really happy for her. ..." Moseley said. "She was able to overcome any type of adversity, obstacle in her life, and she showed that tonight in how she played. Everything came easy for her. I don't think she took any bad shots. Everything was natural, it was a good flow. She looked perfect tonight. Everything she's been through these past couple of years, it all came down to tonight. She aced it better than anybody I've ever seen."
So continued Maryland's season. So ended Princeton's season, the Tigers at once the second-best team on this court but also the best team on a lot of the courts they should have been on Monday.
The result was fair on this night. The process was less fair.
"I don't want to dwell on what-ifs; I think that's a tough way to live your life," Princeton guard Blake Dietrick said of balancing the 31 wins against the one loss this early in the tournament. "There's no regrets. We had no control. We did everything we possibly could to earn a high seed; we won every single game in the regular season. The rest of it was out of our control, and that's fine.
"So I'm going to talk about with my grandkids the amazing things that happened this year and the amazing team I did it with."
Sometimes adversity makes for a better story than perfection. Just ask Laurin Mincy.