Ashley Owusu shoots over Wisconsin's Imani Lewis Credit: Maryland Athletics

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The Maryland women’s basketball team faced an early exit from the Big Ten Tournament late in its quarterfinal game against Nebraska. The Huskers kept pace all afternoon, and though Maryland was heavily favored as the No. 1 seed, the team only led by four points with 3 minutes and 30 seconds to play. That’s when, with the game on the line, Maryland’s Ashley Owusu took over.

A Nebraska shot rattled out and fell to the sophomore guard. Owusu accelerated up the court past a defender, converted a layup off the glass, and drew a foul in the process. She also hit two jump shots and went 5-for-5 on free throws in the final five minutes to ensure Maryland advanced. No one involved with the Terrapins program was surprised. Owusu lives for the postseason.

“If we played the same way we play during the season, we wouldn’t win in March,” she said later that week. “If you lose, you go home, so you have to play even harder. You’ve gotta be locked in even more throughout March. So just coming in with a different mentality and coming to play every game.”

Maryland cruised past its final two opponents and defeated Iowa, 104-84, Saturday to win the program’s fifth Big Ten title in seven years. The Big Ten named Owusu to the all-tournament team, one year after she became the first freshman to win Big Ten Tournament MVP honors. Her teammate Diamond Miller earned that honor this year.

But March Madness is just beginning. The Terps (24-2) received a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament in San Antonio, with their first game set for Monday, March 22, at 4 p.m. ET against No. 15 Mount St. Mary’s. In her first shot at an NCAA Tournament, Owusu remains front and center for a Maryland team with lofty aspirations.

Christy Winters Scott, who played at Maryland from 1986 to 1990 and now works as a basketball analyst for ESPN and other outlets, sees Owusu as the roster’s calm and “unassuming” leader who plays like an upperclassman.

“She’s so consistent and you know what she’s going to do night in, night out, and you let her fly under the radar and go for, I don’t know, the flashy stats or whatever you’re looking for,” Winters Scott says. “She gets the job done and then trots back the other way. Like, ‘This is an everyday occurrence for me. I’ve been here before.’”

Owusu grew up in Woodbridge, Virginia and chose to stay in the D.C. area after starring at Paul VI Catholic High School in Chantilly, where she was ranked as high as the No. 1 point guard in her class by ESPN. While starting only half of Maryland’s games in the 2019-2020 season, she became their assist leader and won Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Even so, she was more of a complementary piece within Maryland’s lineup, which featured future WNBA player Kaila Charles.

When the Terrapins were tasked with replacing five of their top six scorers over the offseason, coach Brenda Frese used the NCAA transfer portal to add some starters, but someone needed to be the linchpin that held those new pieces together. Though soft-spoken by nature, Owusu recognized the role she’d need to play.

“I don’t speak more than I have to,” she said this month. “But I knew this year, if I wanted to win and wanted to help my teammates, then I had to come out of my shell and do what was needed to help my team be successful.”

Owusu has fueled the nation’s highest-scoring offense, leading Maryland in both scoring (18.3 points per game) and assists (5.8 per game), and was a unanimous first-team All-Big Ten selection. Nebraska coach Amy Williams considered her a candidate for Big Ten Player of the Year, an honor that instead went to Naz Hillmon of Michigan, and said Owusu “affects the game in so many ways.”

Deciphering the ways she leaves her impact is no easy task because her varied, almost puzzling skill set takes her all around the floor. She spends most of her minutes as Maryland’s point guard, yet she was a finalist for the Ann Meyers Drysdale Award, which honors the top shooting guard in women’s college basketball. Because Owusu is 6 feet tall with a strong build, Frese often will have her set up in the high or low post to create what Frese called “easy offense” for herself.

“Everybody else on the court is tall, so the taller defenders are gonna be on them,” Winters Scott explains. “So [Owusu] is gonna have a mismatch, so they just sit her right on the block and she just goes to work.”

Her speed, ball-handling and vision make Owusu a double-threat in transition. During Maryland’s semifinal game, Owusu drove the lane and drew the attention of three Northwestern defenders, so she took advantage and dished the ball to Faith Masonius under the basket to orchestrate an easy score.

Winters Scott believes Owusu’s “tremendous” ball-handling, and the separation it can create between her and opponents, is her signature skill.

“She already knows what she’s going to do to the defender,” Winters Scott says. “The defender has no idea. And she’s just so shifty with her choices with the ball.”

The more smart decisions Owusu makes, the more it’s fed the Terps’ best-in-the-nation 1.69 assist-to-turnover ratio that Frese likes to extol. Teammates like Chloe Bibby say they trust Owusu to both facilitate the offense and “go get her bucket” when the situation calls for it.

This is the 16th NCAA Tournament bid Maryland has earned under Frese, whom ESPN last week named its national coach of the year. The program won the 2006 national title but has not reached the Final Four since 2015.

Owusu is looking to change that.

“She wants the responsibility,” Frese said following the close game against Nebraska. “She wants to make the big play—whether it’s a score or an assist, she just wants to make the right play, and it was critical for us.”