On paper, the University of Maryland women’s basketball team has the potential to be dangerously good in the near future.
Maryland will welcome four 5-star high school recruits to College Park next fall. (ESPN ranks the Terps’ incoming freshman class as the third best in the country.) Only one player, Brianna Fraser, will graduate this season. Leading scorer Kaila Charles will return for her senior year, and this year’s freshman starters, center Shakira Austin and guard Taylor Mikesell, will have a year of experience and a full offseason of conditioning under their belts when the 2019-2020 season begins.
But with no clear favorite in the upcoming NCAA tournament, the current Terps squad has a chance to make noise during the Big Dance.
“There’s so much competitiveness on this team,” says coach Brenda Frese. “I mean, they love to win and hate to lose, and they just continue to keep wanting to get better every day. They’ve got really high goals for themselves.”
The Terrapins, ranked ninth in the AP Top 25, are projected to be a No. 3 seed when the NCAA unveils the tournament bracket on March 18. The young team struggled at the start of Big Ten conference play, dropping games to Rutgers and Michigan State, but won 13 of its final 15 games, and captured the Big Ten regular season title along the way. Both losses came to Iowa, first on Feb. 17, and again on March 10 in the Big Ten Tournament championship game. The Hawkeyes won 90-76.
As disappointing as the losses to Iowa have been, Frese isn’t worried about her team’s ability to bounce back. All season long, she’s been impressed with her team’s resiliency.
“Any time we’ve had a bump in the road or a set back, we don’t hang our heads, we don’t feel sorry for ourselves,” she says.
That mindset should help the team as they prepare to face teams who have encountered similar challenges.
“We’ve talked about it here and there,” says Charles. “There’s not just one team, or a couple of teams.”
The University of Connecticut lost two games during the regular season, and other potential No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the NCAA tournament—Baylor, Notre Dame, Oregon, Stanford, Mississippi State, Iowa, and Louisville—have all shown vulnerabilities.
If Maryland is playing its best basketball and everyone is healthy, the team has the talent and tenacity to bust some brackets.
Charles, a First Team All-Big Ten selection and one of 15 candidates for the John R. Wooden Award, given annually to the nation’s best college basketball players, leads the charge for the Terps. The stingy defender has a lethal midrange jumper and an uncanny ability to dodge and dribble her way through traffic and attack the basket, no matter how many opponents swarm around her.
She kept the Terrapins in the Big Ten championship game against Iowa, scoring 16 points in the second quarter alone. A fast-break layup early in the third quarter momentarily tied the game at 53. Over the course of the tournament, she averaged 26.3 points per game, including a career-high 36 points, nine rebounds, two steals, and one block in the championship game, and was named to the All-Tournament team.
Charles can take over games; she’s the player that everyone on both teams knows will have the ball at the end of the game, and yet she finds a way to make the shot anyway.
She is not doing it alone. Freshmen Mikesell and Austin add to the team’s grit.
Mikesell led all freshmen in the country with 86 3-pointers in the regular season on her way to being named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Every day before practice, she forces herself to make 1,000 shots. (On game days, she cuts her routine down to 500 shots.)
“She’s always in the gym trying to get better,” Charles says. “And I love that it’s translating on the court. She’s getting opportunities because she’s worked for it.”
Mikesell’s classmate, Austin, set a Maryland freshman record with 77 regular season blocks and made the All-Big Ten defensive and all-freshman teams. She averages 10.5 rebounds and 8.4 points per game.
The two freshmen have established themselves as go-to playmakers capable of making game-changing plays.
“They want to make plays, they want the responsibility,” Frese says. “I trust both them.”
Maryland’s depth extends beyond Charles, Mikesell, and Austin, who have captured most of the headlines this season. If necessary, the team can rely on an eight- or nine-person rotation of starters and bench players.
Junior Stephanie Jones—the younger sister of former Maryland star and current WNBA player Brionna Jones—averaged 13 points and 6.2 rebounds during the regular season, which earned her Second Team All-Big Ten honors from the media and an honorable mention selection from the coaches.
Point guard Channise Lewis, a sophomore, has the second best assist rate (32.4 percent) and assist-to-turnover ratio (3.41) in the conference.
Junior Blair Watson, who has spent this year reacclimating after an ACL tear interrupted her breakthrough sophomore season, can score consistently from beyond the arc, as can Sara Vujacic, sister of former L.A. Laker Sasha Vujacic. Even freshman Olivia Owens, who didn’t play frequently during the season, has provided Maryland with crucial points in the paint the last couple of weeks.
Then there’s Fraser, the lone senior on the team, who averages 7.6 points and 4.2 rebounds in just 16 minutes of play this season. She’s still recovering from an ankle injury last month, and performed at about 60 percent during the Big Ten tournament, according to Frese, but the team hopes she will be back to full strength soon. Her passion and physicality are contagious.
“She just hypes us all up,” Jones says. “She brings so much energy to our team.”
The prospect of a wide-open tournament, and the team’s potential in the future excites the players. It should excite fans, too.
“I just think if we stick to Maryland basketball, play together, like how we played this last couple of games, we can go really far,” Charles says. “We’ve just got to take it game by game, minute by minute.”