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'She's only scratched the surface': Touted Maryland freshman Shakira Austin living up to expectations

The oldest of six siblings, Shakira Austin’s passion for basketball has filtered down to her youngest sister, Olivia, 10, who has begun to pick up the sport. But blood ties have not had much influence when it comes to Olivia’s favorite player among her eldest sister’s teammates on the Maryland women’s basketball team.

“She has posters of my teammates, but no posters of me, which is pretty crazy,” Shakira Austin, 18, said Monday. “She actually thinks that [junior forward] Steph Jones is her favorite player. She said, ‘She’s the best player on the team.’ I said, ‘Wow. OK. That’s pretty crazy.’ But just knowing that she’s able to see me — and whether I’m her favorite player or Steph’s her favorite player — it’s still great either way.”

Her sister’s opinion aside, Austin has quickly become a fan favorite among the No. 7 Terps (22-2, 11-2 Big Ten), who welcome Nebraska (11-13, 6-7) to Xfinity Center on Thursday. The 6-foot-5 freshman forward leads the team in rebounds per game (10.0) and total blocks (61) — the latter of which has already eclipsed the program’s freshman record of 52 set by Marissa Coleman in 2006 and ranks as the fourth most in a single season.

Austin also ranks fourth on Maryland in scoring (8.6 points per game) and overall steals (22). She is a five-time Big Ten Freshman of the Week honoree and leads the team in double doubles this season with eight.

“We knew she would have a huge impact on our program,” Terps coach Brenda Frese said. “With freshmen, it’s always how quickly they transition, and early for us in the nonconference [games], it was her having to kind of deal with the physicality and the strength. But she’s really benefitted and adjusted quicker than I could have ever imagined. Obviously to have 6 feet and 5 inches of presence of someone that I think is ahead defensively and blocking shots has been a huge factor to our defense this season.”

Austin was no under-the-radar player. The Fredericksburg, Va., resident, who played for two years at Colonial Forge High School before transferring to Riverdale Baptist School in Upper Marlboro for her senior season, was a McDonald’s All American and the No. 4 overall player in the 2018 class, according to ESPN. She credited her father, David, with helping her prepare for the leap to the collegiate level.

“My whole senior year was dedicated to being prepared for Maryland, and I felt like all of the work I put in is just showing right now,” she said. “It’s nothing really spectacular. Just knowing that all of the hard work I put in is paying off, and just knowing that I’ve been able to make an impact in my first year has been great.”

It has not been all smiles for Austin, however. She acknowledged there was a stretch of games against Big Ten opponents when she struggled offensively. During a six-game span that began with a 77-61 victory at Penn State on Dec. 28 and ended with a 77-60 loss at Michigan State on Jan. 17, Austin scored fewer in single digits five times, including zero twice — in a 75-69 win against Ohio State on Jan. 5 as well as against the Spartans.

“It was pretty surprising,” she said. “It’s probably one of the first times when I didn’t know what to do or what to expect. I didn’t really know how to handle it or how I should talk about it with people. I didn’t really talk to my dad about it. I pretty much just went into a shell. After that, knowing that I was prepared for this and knowing that I put in the work to be able to execute, it really took a lot of time. But just having long talks with Coach B and [assistant] coach Shay [Robinson] and people I look up to, they just put a lot of confidence back into me, making sure they believed in me.”

While scoring was a problem, Austin continued to be a presence on defense, where she is only 19 blocks away from tying Kris Kirchner for the single-season school record. Austin’s height and long arms are significant assets, but junior guard-forward Kaila Charles said opponents tend to overlook her teammate’s footwork.

“When people try to drive on her, they’re probably shocked that she stays with them,” said Charles, who is the Terps’ leading scorer (16.0 points per game). “She doesn’t have slow feet. And then they’re probably shocked because their shot just got sent out of bounds. She has those long arms. So I think people think, ‘Oh, I can run right by her because she’s so big,’ but then they get shocked and surprised because she’s right there with them.”

In a 79-67 victory over the Nittany Lions on Jan. 20, Austin finished with 13 points, 10 rebounds, three blocks, two steals and two assists. Penn State coach Coquese Washington noted Austin has meshed well with Charles and 6-3 senior forward Brianna Fraser.

“When their post [players] are playing that well, it gets to be pick-your-poison,” Washington told the Montgomery County Sentinel. “And we have young posts inside while Kaila Charles and Brianna Fraser are very seasoned post players, and it makes it easy for Shakira Austin to play alongside players like Kaila and Fraser, who have been here and are very experienced.”

Austin said she is poised to regain the form that helped her claim four Big Ten Freshman of the Week awards in November and December.

“It’s definitely coming back slowly but surely,” she said. “I didn’t have that great of a game in the last game [one point, three rebounds and one block in Sunday’s 62-48 win at then-No. 20 Rutgers] because I was in foul trouble, but it hasn’t really affected my confidence right now. I’m pretty much up there like I was at the beginning of the season. I’m just worried about the next game right now. That’s all that’s on my mind.”

Frese said she is eager to continue working with Austin for the next three years.

“She’s only scratched the surface,” Frese said. “The defensive tools and passing she brought in, but there’s a whole other level for her from the offensive end, how she runs the floor. She’s so long and so athletic that it’s exciting to think that she has a chance in her senior year to be one of the first names called in the WNBA [draft]. So it’s just putting your head down and going to work because there’s a lot of work that’s got to take place between her freshman year and the time she graduates.”

edward.lee@baltsun.com

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