Maryland women led by seniors and freshmen, and these two formed a fast bond

Freshman Kaila Charles and senior Shatori Walker-Kimbrough work in lockstep on and off the court.

It is Brenda Frese's job to get seen-it-all seniors and know-nothing freshmen on the same page, moving in lockstep for the Maryland women's basketball team, but rarely does it happen early in the season. Sometimes it can seem as if they are hearing different tunes.

So the moments when a veteran and a rookie are, amazingly, not out of step, the coach remembers. Early in non-conference play this winter, Frese was reviewing film of a Terps win. She noticed something she hadn't caught during the game. "What is this?" she recalled thinking Thursday.

It was maybe the most important thing two teammates can share (besides, maybe, starting roles on a top-five team). Senior Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and freshman Kaila Charles already had a well-choreographed handshake, a quick little thing punctuated by "Hit Dem Folks," a popular dance move in which the arms are raised in a "U" shape while one leg is lifted.

As No. 3 seed Maryland (30-2) opens NCAA tournament play Friday at home against No. 14 seed Bucknell (27-5), its seventh straight appearance in "The Big Dance," the Terps will again come to rely on two roommates, all-conference honorees and, yes, occasional dance partners. They are the two fastest players on the team, but not even that can explain how they have come together so quickly.

"The way we clicked," said Charles, a Glenn Dale native and Riverdale Baptist graduate, "it was just unexplainable, to be honest."

It was by luck — not some roommate-compatibility algorithm — that Walker-Kimbrough, an All-America guard, ended up sharing her final year in College Park with Charles and fellow freshman wing Blair Watson. "I'd like to take full credit," Frese joked, but the most important thing she'd done was bring them to Maryland.

Charles grew up just minutes from the campus in Prince George's County, had visited it a handful of times, but she still needed help finding her way early on. When she moved into her place with Walker-Kimbrough in May for the start of summer school, she wasn't sure how to get to class. Walker-Kimbrough pointed her in the right direction.

In a way, this was how it had gone for Walker-Kimbrough as a freshman, too. The Aliquippa, Pa., native averaged more than nine points per game her first year, but, Frese said, she "had to prove it to herself." On a Final Four-bound team, she might not have believed how good she was or how great she could become.

Charles was already well acquainted with excellence. At Eleanor Roosevelt, she won two state championships. Last year, she was named a McDonald's All-American and led her Riverdale Baptist team to the finals of the Dick's Sporting Goods High School Nationals. Even Charles' prom date as a senior had a certain pedigree: then-DeMatha guard Markelle Fultz, the likely top pick in the 2017 NBA draft.

So when she showed up for summer workouts, she told Frese she wanted to guard Walker-Kimbrough. If Charles figured this might be like a freshman trying to handle a senior thesis, she didn't let on. The daughter of a former Olympic sprinter, she wanted to beat Walker-Kimbrough in end-of-practice sprints, too.

It didn't happen, or at least not all that often, but at least a peer was pushing Walker-Kimbrough.

"For some reason, she does not have an 'off' button," Walker-Kimbrough said. "She doesn't get tired. I can't seem to figure out why. I feel like she's superhuman at times."

Each has a kryptonite. Charles is "not that good" at pingpong, she acknowledged, having been bested many times in matches with Walker-Kimbrough. "But she's making me better," she added.

Walker-Kimbrough is a good dancer, Charles said, but as a singer? Her passion outstrips her ability. "Better than me," Charles was quick to point out again.

This is how they go, finding a way to way to compliment, or complement, the other as if it were natural. Walker-Kimbrough is the only Big Ten Conference All-Defensive Team member of the two, but when Frese challenges her to defend better, she draws energy from the freshman who has guarded jet-quick point guards, towering post players and everyone in between.

"Seeing her go hard, seeing her dive on the floor, that makes me want to dive on the floor," Walker-Kimbrough said of Charles, who was named to the league's All-Freshman Team along with guard Destiny Slocum after averaging 10.1 points and 5.6 rebounds per game.

For a while Thursday, it was unclear who would miss the other more after this tournament run and school year is over. Then Walker-Kimbrough started to talk about food.

One day this season, Charles left campus for a home-cooked meal. She came back with a take-home plate — curry chicken, beans and rice, oxtails. It was for Walker-Kimbrough, whose eyes, at this retelling, lit up like she'd been left open in the corner.

"I was just loving every second of it," she said. Charles must have noticed, because several times since, Walker-Kimbrough has gotten a certain text message from her roommate. It's the kind of news that just might make you want to dance: There's food for you in the refrigerator.

"You'd think that because I'm a senior, I would be doing that," Walker-Kimbrough said, laughing, "but a freshman's doing that for me."

jshaffer@baltsun.com

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