COLLEGE PARK — Tianna Hawkins walked onto the court at Comcast Center earlier this week with a broad grin, beginning an informal workout in the arena where her jersey perhaps will hang in the rafters next to those of other program luminaries one day.
The 6-foot-3 senior forward practiced shooting from the foul line while bantering lightheartedly with Maryland women's basketball assistant coach Dave Adkins, who has been partly responsible for Hawkins' ascension from project to potential first-round WNBA draft pick. The two often tease each other these days, but Hawkins was hardly as cheerful in the early stages of her college career.
She recalled being reduced to tears as a freshman during demanding sessions on an exercise bicycle under the watchful eye of Adkins and Marlin Chinn, another of coach Brenda Frese's assistants. There were other emotional breakdowns in practice when Hawkins doubted if she could keep pace running up and down the court repeatedly, as the coaching staff mandated.
One workout, from when Hawkins was still at Riverdale Baptist High School, stands out in Frese's mind.
“She was going to prom, so she didn't want to sweat,” Frese said this week with a chuckle. “We always knew that was going to be the hurdle, but we also were pretty confident that once she bought into it, she would be very successful.”
The dedication to physical fitness gradually produced a leaner athlete with far more stamina, and the results on the court have been pronounced. After averaging double figures in scoring as a junior, Hawkins this season led the Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring (18.5 points per game) and finished second in rebounding (9.5) this season.
The first-team All-ACC selection is third on Maryland's career rebounding list, behind Crystal Langhorne and Marissa Coleman, and owns the school's single-game record for rebounds with 24. Hawkins set the mark last season in an 86-58 victory over Wake Forest at Comcast Center, where the fourth-seeded Terps (24-7) will play No. 13 seed Quinnipiac (30-2) today in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
“I've never seen anybody rebound like her,” said teammate Malina Howard, a coaches' All-Freshman team forward who has modeled her game after Hawkins'. “I've never been around someone [where] it's like the ball knows where she is and goes to her.”
Last season, in helping Maryland win the ACC tournament and advance to an NCAA tournament regional final, Hawkins led the country in field-goal percentage (62.3 percent) and began drawing interest from WNBA teams. This season, WNBA coaches and scouts regularly attended her games, compelling Hawkins to consider another career after graduation.
As a criminal justice major, Hawkins originally planned to become a federal law enforcement agent.
“When I was younger, I was like, I might have a chance to play” professionally, Hawkins said. “I wanted to play for the Mystics when I was younger, but as time went on, when I got to high school and when I first got here, I was like, ‘All right, I'm done after college.' Just to see how things change, it's just been great.”
Hawkins' entire basketball career has been about transformation. Not just her body and attitude, but also her shot. Her jump shot has vastly improved over the past four years, presenting matchup difficulties for most opponents her size.
At one end, Hawkins can outmuscle other forwards for a defensive rebound, move quickly down the court on a fast break and pull up for a midrange shot or even from beyond the arc. She has made seven 3-pointers this season after making none over her first three years.
Hawkins's face-up game has allowed her to become that much more involved in Maryland's half-court offense as well, coming off screens and drawing bigger defenders outside so teammates such as junior forward Alyssa Thomas have a clearer path to the basket.
It's no coincidence that while Hawkins is having her most productive season, so too is Thomas, who recently became the first two-time ACC Player of the Year in Maryland history.
Hawkins initially began showing promise from the outside as a freshman in high school at National Christian in Fort Washington, where she played for two years before finishing at Riverdale Baptist in Upper Marlboro. Hawkins frequently practiced with the boys team at National Christian and worked with coach Trevor Brown on refining her release.
“When I first saw her shoot the ball, I was like, ‘Man, this girl is going to be able to play inside and outside,'“ Brown said.
Hawkins' versatility has been especially valuable this season because of injuries that have depleted Maryland's rotation.
Frese has had to piece together a backcourt after season-ending anterior cruciate ligament injuries to guards Brene Moseley and Laurin Mincy. Freshman forward Tierney Pfirman also has been in and out of the starting lineup because of injury and illness.
Over the past three games, Hawkins is averaging 16.3 points, 11 rebounds and two assists and has made three of six 3-pointers.
She's reached double figures in both scoring and rebounding in nearly half of Maryland's games this season and has done so 39 times overall after being ranked No. 133 in her recruiting class coming out of high school.
“I like kids that don't know how good they are,” Frese said. “It is truly rewarding when you're in a profession like this to watch that evolution in their four years. I think that's probably the best part of our job.”
NCAA first round
No. 13 seed Quinnipiac
@No. 4 Maryland
Today, 11:15 a.m.
Online: ESPN3.comCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun