Some of the names that propelled Maryland women’s basketball to a Big Ten championship last year have moved on, such as WNBA rookie Kaila Charles. Others that were supposed to help fuel this year’s offense, such as Angel Reese and Channise Lewis, are sidelined due to injury.
Then, of course, there’s the pandemic, always casting its dark shadow over this season.
The Terps faced those challenges without breaking. With youth and first-year members leading the charge, Maryland continues to rise week by week to reach the tail end of January ranked No. 7 in the nation, unbeaten through seven Big Ten games, riding a 10-game winning streak as well as a 24-game Big Ten streak dating back to last season.
Maryland averages 92.5 points a game, on track to shatter the previous season record (89.7).
Despite all the doom and disappointment of the pandemic year, Terps coach Brenda Frese, in her 19th season, sees the ingredients mixing for one outcome: glory.
“It means you have a chance to have a championship team,” Frese said. “In all my years past, I could take those six national championship teams, I could take more recent teams — any teams that have had an opportunity to compete for Big Ten regular season, postseason, NCAA titles. When you’re hard to guard like this, where everybody’s an option, those are your best teams.”
All five starters are either sophomores (Diamond Miller and Ashley Owusu) or transfers (Katie Benzan, Chloe Bibby and Mimi Collins). And all five are scoring in double-figure averages in 12 games, led by Miller (17.9 points per game) and Owusu (17.8).
Benzan (15.3 points per game) leads the team and is third in the nation with 43 3-pointers — more than any other player on an Associated Press Top-25 team.
Every Terp posted free-throw averages well above 50%, led by Benzan (95.2%), while Miller has made the most (49).
The team is handling the ball well as a unit, too, with 234 assists (sixth in the nation) and 152 turnovers, or a 1.5 ratio (seventh in the nation).
And powering it, Frese said, is pure chemistry.
“When you look at our assist-to-turnover ratio, this team wants to make the right play. You can see that on both ends of the floor, offensively and defensively,” Frese said. “They share the basketball extremely well. You can see when you have players that are shooting the ball so extremely well that they want to find the best option.”
Coronavirus issues account for two cancellations and a postponement on Maryland’s schedule so far. That postponement, Ohio State, turned a home game into a road one. The Terps’ second postponement, Thursday’s home game against Iowa, has yet to be rescheduled after the Hawkeyes program determined it did not feel safe traveling to the area on the same day as the inauguration. With under two months left in the season, there’s not much wiggle room for adding games back, either.
The limited five-game nonconference period gave less time for a new crew to work out early-season kinks, and unexpected delays between games continues to challenge Maryland’s momentum.
The Terps refuse to use that as an excuse. If anything, it’s taught them important lessons: control what you can control, treat every practice as if another opponent was on the floor.
“I can’t say enough about the resiliency,” Frese said. “Every punch, when we get knocked down, and the misfortune of losing Angel and Channise both, every player on this team has stepped up and done a little bit more. This team is really hungry.”
As the Terps maintain their dominance in the conference — maybe even reach that coveted No. 1 spot — there are aspects Frese would like to see improve. In many of Maryland’s Big Ten games, opponents came too close to taking the lead. Even Wisconsin, currently winless in the conference, lost by only nine points.
“When you’re giving up 70 to 80 points, we’ve got to be able to tighten that number a lot more defensively,” Frese said.
Knee-deep into conference games, Frese sees a team that’s met the challenge and surpassed expectations.
“It’s not an easy defense to pick up, the way we play. With a lot of new faces, I’m encouraged that we will get there because there’s just a great mentality to get better,” the coach said.
That mentality comes not only from skill and resiliency, but true friendship on and off the court. The team communicates with one another, no matter how tough the conversation is, and it supports one another through anything.
“Even in the offseason, when we were all quarantined at home, that grew our relationship, just having that opportunity to talk and communicate with each other,” sophomore Faith Masonius said.
Despite her almost two decades coaching a 50-year-old program that has included Olympians, future coaches, WNBA players and champions, this 2020-21 team already nestled its way into a special place in Frese’s heart.
“We’re going through a pandemic. This group has it like no other team has ever had it,” Frese said. “We as a coaching staff love coming every day to be a part of their life.”