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Freshman point guard Destiny Slocum calls on lessons from Idaho youth to lead Maryland women

Freshman point guard Destiny Slocum hasn't been shy in taking the reins for Maryland women’s basketball.

For hours and hours, the girl named Destiny pounded her basketball in an otherwise silent gym, finding a bit more peace with each shot she lofted.

It wasn’t as if she could forget the day her parents sat her down in the living room and said her mother, Christina, had breast cancer. At home, she bore a burden no fifth-grader should face, cooking meals and dressing her three younger siblings for school as chemotherapy sapped her mother’s strength.

“I don’t know if I can talk about it without crying,” Christina Slocum said recently. “She was my rock.”

But for a while each day, Destiny pushed that life to the side and fell deeper and deeper into the game that consumed her.

She does not believe those difficult days forged her into the young woman who commands the floor for Maryland’s powerhouse women’s basketball team. Rather, she said, her mother’s illness revealed qualities that were already in her.

“That’s who I am. I knew what I had to do. I didn’t have to ask,” Slocum said. “I just knew that she needed my help. I think it revealed leadership skills that I always had as a kid.”

Christina Slocum recovered after eight months of treatment and her daughter, fueled by that precocious blend of basketball passion and self-possession, evolved into the hottest prospect Idaho had produced in decades.

Now she’s starting as a freshman point guard for the No. 3 Terps, leading the team in assists and wowing teammates with her indomitable spirit.

“I have to pinch myself that she is just a freshman and we’re going to have her for four years,” Maryland coach Brenda Frese said of Slocum, who is averaging 11.1 points, 5.6 assists and 3.1 rebounds heading into Thursday night’s home game against Illinois.

If you’re struggling to think of notable basketball stars from the Gem State, there’s a reason. Former Texas star and Olympic gold medalist Andrea Lloyd hailed from Idaho, but after her, the precedents for Slocum are nonexistent.

Frese had never recruited a player from Idaho before she started hearing a buzz around Slocum, then a rising junior.

But Slocum thrived on the fact that no one saw her coming. She played on travel teams beside girls she’d grown up with, and she loved it when highly touted players from California or Washington scoffed at the supposed bumpkins from the plains.

“You could say it made things harder,” she said of trying to burst onto the national scene from such an unfamiliar locale. “But I would say it made it way more fun, just being that underdog and being under the radar for my entire life. Nobody knows who you are. You get off the bus and they’re laughing at you. Who’s this team from Idaho? And then we’d go in and give them a beating. Honestly, being under the radar was way more fun.”

Slocum described her childhood in Meridian, Idaho, a rapidly growing neighbor to Boise, as “calm, not wild at all.”

She and her friends spent their time snowboarding, hiking and riding ATVs in addition to playing team sports. The town generally shut down at 9 p.m.

Slocum learned the game from her father, Jon, who had been a good high school player. He organized neighborhood tournaments featuring her older brother, Marcus. Destiny wasn’t invited at first, but she forced the issue by proving she could go toe-to-toe with her brother. She affectionately refers to Marcus as the “test dummy” because he paved the way for her entry into youth sports.

Connie Skogrand, the longtime coach at Mountain View High School, heard tales of Slocum tearing up the local recreational scene. When she finally saw her in person, she realized the seventh-grader was easily good enough to start for Mountain View’s varsity.

Skogrand often ate lunch with her freshman point guard during Slocum’s first year at Mountain View. They discussed what it would take for a 14-year-old upstart to earn the respect of veteran starters.

“What struck me was that her knowledge of the game was way beyond her years,” Skogrand recalled. “I would make references to the 1970s NBA, and she knew all of them. I’ve coached for 30 years and she was the first one who ever had that kind of knowledge at such a young age.”

Slocum’s love bordered on obsession. When she had to write a paper or give a speech at school, basketball was the subject. The few times her mother grounded her, she did not take Slocum’s phone or cancel a movie date. She banned her from the gym.

“That was devastating,” Christina recalled with a laugh.

Slocum probably could have averaged 30 points a game, but she went out of her way to feed teammates instead. She practiced at such a pace that she changed the culture of the program. And when she needed to go virtuoso, she could do that as well.

Skogrand remembered the Mavericks ceding an early double-digit lead to archrival Boise High during Slocum’s sophomore year. Early in the second quarter, an irritated Slocum pulled up and swished a 3-pointer from 30 feet.

“Here comes the show,” a grinning Skogrand said to her assistant. Slocum would score 22 points in the eight-minute period.

By her senior year, Slocum was a consensus top-10 recruit.

Her skills captivated big-time college coaches, but Slocum had little use for basking in their attention. In fact, she grimaces at the memory of being recruited.

“It’s the most terrible thing ever,” she said. “I hate telephone calls, hate talking on the phone.”

She committed orally to Washington before her junior year, because she felt comfortable on the Seattle campus after traveling there for numerous camps and tournaments. But she reopened her recruitment after that season, feeling she had not been thorough enough.

Her dad was the first to raise Maryland as a possibility, but Slocum said College Park was too far away. Then she happened to watch a video segment about Frese and her son, Tyler, overcoming leukemia. “I kind of like that coach,” she told Jon.

Slocum liked her even more when they finally met in person. “She’s very confident,” Slocum said. “That was the first thing I liked. She knows what she wants. She knows how to get the people who are going to get her to that goal. I like that mindset. I like that she scheduled UConn. I like coaches who are confident like that. I like the fire. I like the energy.”

Frese knew she would need a starting point guard after Brene Moseley and Chloe Pavlech graduated from the 2015-16 team, and she was thrilled to sign a player as skilled as Slocum. But Frese acknowledged that because Slocum was so far away and because of the player’s aversion to phone chats, she did not have a clear feel for the personality of her new floor leader.

“I don’t know that I knew the dynamic of the communication part until we got her here,” Frese said. “She was pretty shy still in the recruiting process. That dynamic didn’t show itself until she got here.”

Fortunately for both player and coach, Maryland had a team-bonding trip to Italy scheduled for August. That journey, which included two exhibition games, gave Slocum all the time she needed to win the trust of her coach and veteran stars Brionna Jones and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough.

“I had known how talented she was, but by the time we got to Italy, I knew how special she was,” Frese said. “Just a natural communicator with me on the sidelines and with her teammates. Just understanding beyond her years.”

Frese had never been shy to hand a freshman the keys to her high-powered team. She did it with Kristi Toliver when the Terps won their lone national championship in 2006. And she did it with Lexie Brown when they returned to the Final Four in 2014.

“If you’re ready to handle the responsibility, it’s yours,” Frese said.

You might think Slocum committed to Maryland based on that history.

“Actually, I had no idea,” she said, laughing.

But it’s true she evokes memories of Toliver with her buoyant on-court personality and fearless shot-making.

“As a freshman, she has really great poise on the court,” said Jones, the All-America center from Aberdeen who benefits from many of Slocum’s feeds. “She knows when to slow us down and get us situated and then when to push tempo.”

Her signature performance so far came in Maryland’s six-point loss to No. 1 Connecticut. Slocum scored a team-high 23 points, and the 5-foot-7 freshman was the star of the show in the fourth quarter, hitting three contested 3-pointers from NBA range to spur a furious rally.

Skogrand laughed to herself at home. The Slocum she saw on television against the best team in the country was the same one she’d seen back in the day against Boise High.

Frese gently chided her young star after the game, saying the freshman could assert herself in such fashion whenever she pleased.

“I learned a lot about myself in that game,” Slocum said. “In the fourth quarter, I was like, ‘I should do this more often. Get out of my own head and just play.’ ”

As well as she has played, Slocum acknowledged that her adjustment to College Park has been significant.

“It’s busy all the time here,” she said. “I feel like it never gets quiet.”

Her dad misses coaching her every day to the extent that he murmurs nonstop instructions when he watches her on television. Her mother and her siblings aren’t fixtures in the stands the way they were for so many years. Meridian is more than 2,000 miles from her new home.

But Slocum wanted to test herself against the very best. And the girl who learned she could prop up a family at age 9 and lead a team at age 14 is doing just fine.

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