'Out of her shell'

COLLEGE PARK — Of all the questions Brionna Jones has answered this season, of all the bizarre and banal inquiries — Does she speak? Can she jump? Is she finally ready? — there is one interview her father, Michael, likes best.

It was early March, and the freshman was back home at Aberdeen High. A girls basketball playoff game was over, and the host Eagles had lost. A local reporter and cameraman approached Jones. They wanted an interview with the Maryland women's basketball team's starting forward.


This was unexpected, Michael Jones explained. When she scored a career-high 18 points in a blowout win of Syracuse in January, she was told not only that she would have to answer reporters' questions, but also which ones to expect. This interview was impromptu, a journalistic double-team out of nowhere. What did they want from her? How would she handle the attention?

"She answered that," he recalled fondly, "like a pro."


In the minute-long question-and-answer, there are no awkward sidelong glances at the nearby camera lens. Jones smiles as she speaks, and what she says is not terse or contrived or silly. But for a couple instances in which she reaches for one particularly popular conversational crutch of young adults, her interview goes, like, totally OK. The video package ends with in-game footage of a layup by Jones and the words of an ESPN analyst: "She never stops working."

Fewer than 300 people have seen that YouTube video, comparatively a speck of the immense TV audience expected to watch Jones and the fourth-seeded Terps face No. 1 seed Notre Dame on Sunday night in the Final Four.

That her surgically repaired right knee is now healthy enough to take the Bridgestone Arena court in Nashville, Tenn., against the undefeated Fighting Irish is testament enough to a player who, at one point, was under consideration for a redshirt year. How a shy 18-year-old has come "out of her shell," as senior center Essence Townsend fittingly put it, is all the more remarkable.

"That's what it's about: the full evolution of a player," coach Brenda Frese said.

Consider the beginning: summer workouts. Jones arrived in College Park from Havre de Grace early in the season, needing to rehabilitate her knee, still smarting from an ACL tear that had ended her high school career.

When Maryland gathered to practice, senior guard Sequoia Austin knew who the big, 6-foot-3 newcomer was. Everyone did. She just wondered whether someone had put her on mute.

"During the summer, I didn't even know what her voice sounded like," Austin said. "Even into the first practice, they were clapping when she put three words together."

Her inner Rambo remained hidden, even when the surroundings called for otherwise. During a paintball game last summer, teammates said she was like a shadow, so quiet were her movements.


At one point, Katie Rutan felt a teammate brush by her on the battlefield. The senior guard knew it had to be Jones not because she'd heard the creak of her knee brace — she hadn't, she said — but because she'd felt it knock against her own leg.

"I feel like people see Bri," Rutan said, "but they don't hear her coming."

Big enough to have what Austin now calls "mitts" for hands and graceful enough to orchestrate the middle of Aberdeen's 1-3-1 zone pressure last year, Jones was hard to miss in Baltimore-area basketball, until she actually went missing.

She still remembers the day her knee gave way: Jan. 3, 2013. Against North Harford, she'd stolen the ball, missed a shot, stolen the ball back, raced downcourt and come to a jump stop underneath the basket. A trailing defender flew by. Jones' right anterior cruciate ligament went bye-bye.

"It was just a weird, freak thing," her father said.

Jones didn't have much to say when she arrived at Maryland ("Now I talk a lot," she said, laughing). She didn't have much to eat, either. Frese wanted a lighter post player, someone who could make it up and down the court in 11 seconds, a team fitness benchmark.


Jones resolved to cut soda from her diet. Barq's Root Beer was the hardest to give up. She broke up with her love: candy fruit snacks. Sayonara, Starburst.

Soon her knee was stronger and her athleticism was better and the court seemed closer. When she'd started those full-court sprints, she remembered, she would be headed down the homestretch, crossing midcourt, just as the rest of the team finished. Those two or three seconds of separateness, of people waiting on her, were agonizing.

So she worked just as her parents, college athletes themselves, had raised her to, going to weightlifting, rehabilitation and practice, sometimes all in one day. She gained speed. She lost weight, more than 30 pounds. She broke 11 seconds. "I was still the slowest," Jones said, "but not by as much."

The season started, and Jones, finally cleared to play, began to change. Her teammates noticed.

"When she came in, it was like, 'Girl, you barely jumped over the line," said Townsend, who was asked to specify what line, exactly. She pointed to a black streak crossing the floor of the Terps' auxiliary gym inside Comcast Center.

"Now it's like, 'Girl, you're catching a lot of air,'" Townsend continued, cracking up.


Her parents noticed.

"Even when she comes home now, she's the jokester in the house," Michael said. He added: "Her opinion is coming out sometimes when you don't ask for it."

Her coaches noticed.

Aside from the Terps' Senior Day game, Jones has started every game since February. Maryland is 12-2 in that span. In Atlantic Coast Conference play, she averaged 8.3 points and 5.0 rebounds per game. With enough attempts to qualify, her .601 field-goal percentage for the season would have ranked third in the league. The two players above her were All-ACC selections.

The only thing expected of her she hasn't done, at least publicly, is dance. As Maryland advanced through the Louisville, Ky., regional, more and more TV broadcasts trained their focus on the Terps' bench.

What they saw was a swirl of shimmies and shakes, gestures and gyrations. It was all choreographed, and Jones, conveniently enough, would miss her cues. She said later that they were honest mistakes, that in the heart of pressure-cooker games, she'd simply forgotten.


She could offer no such excuses in the postgame madness of a March win — not that anyone would have heard her if she spoke up. With the music bumping and the team dancing, Townsend recalled, Jones would bust a move. "We see you, Bri," someone would say, and together they'd laugh.