As Maryland's Kiah Gillespie faces No. 1 Connecticut, the familiar becomes a foe
By Gene Wang
The Washington Post|
Dec 28, 2015 | 3:00 AM
Maryland women's basketball freshman forward Kiah Gillespie grew up less than an hour from the University of Connecticut, so during her youth-league days, it was natural for her to gravitate toward the Huskies. Gillespie's favorite player was Diana Taurasi, who's on the short list for the greatest of all time.
Gillespie kept a Taurasi jersey hanging in her closest as motivation, and as she became a two-time high school player of the year in Connecticut, the thought of playing for coach Geno Auriemma's powerhouse certainly crossed her mind. She even attended Connecticut practices at Auriemma's invitation, but the match, according to Gillespie, just wasn't right for either side.
Gillespie had offers from dozens of other marquee programs, including South Carolina, Louisville and Ohio State. But in August 2014, Gillespie called Terps coach Brenda Frese to inform her she would be coming to College Park, citing the comfort she felt with her future teammates and the wealth of talent on the roster fresh off a Final Four.
"Certain aspects of my game that I have probably didn't fit [Connecticut's] program the best way," said Gillespie, who averaged 31.2 points, 16.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game as a senior at Capital Prep. "I just felt like I'd be more successful here at Maryland, and just the way that I play and what [Auriemma] was looking for just didn't fit. He found two great players who fit that program perfectly. He knows how to recruit, and that's why again they're the No. 1 team in the country."
The 6-foot Gillespie started immediately for the sixth-ranked Terps, who are seeking to complete their nonconference schedule undefeated in a showdown against three-time defending champion and No. 1 Connecticut tonight in the Maggie Dixon Classic at Madison Square Garden. It's the first game in program history for Maryland at the "World's Most Famous Arena."
The Terps (11-0) have lost all four meetings with the Huskies, most recently a 81-58 defeat in the Final Four last season in Tampa, Fla. Connecticut (9-0) has beaten Maryland by an average of more than 20 points, with the Terps' closest margin a 63-48 loss in the teams' inaugural meeting Dec. 3, 2012, at XL Center in Hartford.
"I always love players that want to compete against them and beat them," Frese said of Gillespie. "That's the right mentality you have to have to come in and make a difference in our game. When I saw her as we got to recruit her, just how talented she is, her versatility, her size, her competitiveness, she was a perfect fit for us here at Maryland."
Gillespie (10.2 points per game) is among four Maryland players averaging double-figure scoring and ranks third on the team in rebounding (4.9 per game). She has led the Terps in scoring once, with 18 points in a 97-41 win against visiting Detroit on Nov. 20. In Maryland's most recent game, a 106-30 victory over UMES on Dec. 20, Gillespie came off the bench to score nine points and grab six rebounds.
It was just the second time this season Gillespie did not start, as Frese went instead with senior Malina Howard. Gillespie also was a reserve in an 86-43 win against Central Connecticut State one game after missing seven of eight shots in an 82-64 victory over then-No. 20 Syracuse on Dec. 2 in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
Brianna Fraser, the only other freshman on Maryland's roster, also has a personal stake in tonight's game. The 6-3 forward from Brooklyn, N.Y., will be going back to her home city and playing again at Madison Square Garden. Fraser, a McDonald's All-American, played high school championship games at the arena during her sophomore and senior years.
"Oh, it's a honor," Terps junior guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough said of playing at the arena. "Just the people who've played there, Kobe [Bryant], Carmelo [Anthony], just being able to be there and not only play where legends play but to play against UConn, it doesn't get much better than that."