In so many ways, Stephanie Jones felt proud to chase the legacy of her older sister, University of Maryland All-American Brionna Jones.
But this cruelly familiar plot twist, one she’d worked so hard to avoid, was not what she had in mind.
Jones’ scream on Jan. 14, 2016, tore through the gym at Aberdeen High School, where she’d seemed on her way to another brilliant game in her relentless push to surpass her sister’s career scoring record. Her knee cap was pushed all the way to the side, a sight disconcerting enough that her mother, Sanciarhea, draped a coat over it to block the view. Jones did not need a doctor’s official diagnosis to know she’d fallen victim to the family curse — a torn ACL.
The story strains credulity, really — four basketball-obsessed siblings who sharpened one another through intra-family competition in the backyard of their Harford County home, who all attracted the attention of college recruiters and who all shredded their knees just as their NCAA dreams came into focus.
But that synopsis flattens the narrative, makes it seem as if it was inevitable that Stephanie Jones would recover and become a college standout, just like her brother, Jarred, did at Loyola Maryland, and just like Brionna did for coach Brenda Frese’s powerhouse program in College Park. It glosses over the agony Jones felt as she jogged up and down the stairs at the Xfinity Center, determined to play the 2016-17 college season with Brionna, even though she would not be fully recovered. Those hours of pain and perseverance — Maryland team trainer Megan Rogers imploring her, “No, you’re fine! Your knee is built for this!” — transformed Jones enough that she hopes to become a physical therapist after her playing days are done.
Her story is a family story, but it’s also one of individual will. Stephanie Jones did not just earn second team All-Big Ten honors for a Maryland team that won its fourth regular-season conference title in five years because her sister or her parents dragged her up the mountain. She’s fueled by a hatred of defeat that belies her easy smile and that belongs entirely to her.
“She was my warrior,” Sanciarhea Jones said this week, as her daughter prepared for the start of the Big Ten tournament. “If it was a battle, it was on.”
If Stephanie Jones had wanted an easy road, she probably would not have followed Brionna to Maryland. Her father, Mike, warned her of the potential pitfalls.
“I told her once you commit and go behind Bri, you’ve got to understand that coming in behind an All-American who made two Final Fours in her first two years, that’s going to be tough to duplicate,” he recalled saying. “They’re going to measure you against Bri. That’s just what people do. It’s not fair, but that’s what’s going to happen.”
Jones would not be deterred, and these days, she’s matter-of-fact when asked about the weight of her family legacy.
“There was a little pressure,” she said. “But nothing I couldn’t handle, just taking it in stride. Over the course of the years, I think people kind of figured that me and Bri, we are two different people. We play differently.”
The one thing that still annoys her, Mike Jones said, is when people mistake her for Brionna because of their strikingly similar facial features.
You look at Jones’ statistics and no one number blows you away. The junior forward ranks third on the 2018-2019 team in scoring, third in rebounding, third in steals, third in free-throw shooting. She won’t approach her sister’s career point total or superhuman shooting accuracy. But one word comes up over and over when you ask Maryland coaches and teammates to describe her — dependability.
“I know if a game’s coming down to the wire, she’s got to be on the floor,” Frese said.
“No matter the situation, if she’s in foul trouble or not having a good game, she always has that big smile on her face, and she’s going to try to get us that extra possession,” said classmate and fellow All-Big Ten performer Kaila Charles. “She’s always doing the little things for us, and she doesn’t get a lot of credit. But she really does hold our team down. I know if I’m having an off night or a lot of people are having uncharacteristic nights, we know Steph is going to come through and be consistent.”
That was always the case, her parents said. Need a steady hand at point guard to get through a tense rec-league moment? Ask Steph, even though she was usually one of the tallest players on the floor. Need someone to shut up a neighborhood trash talker of either gender? Ask Steph.
Jones’ mother laughed, recalling how her third child chose the No. 24, which she still wears at Maryland. It came from a youth-league game in which she scored 24 of her team’s 26 points. Her motivation? The other team featured a boy from down the block who’d been mouthing off to her.
Jarred and Brionna also raged to win, but they hid it beneath mellow exteriors. Not Stephanie. When she lost to either of her older, larger siblings in a game of one-on-one, everyone in the family knew to stay away until she cooled down.
“That’s easy,” Mike Jones said when asked how her personality differed from those of her siblings. “None of them liked to lose, but she would show it. She hated to lose. She’d come in and she’d be hot.”
Frese recalled a tale of Jones sitting in the back seat of the family car, breaking one pencil after another as she processed her fury at an Amateur Athletic Union loss.
Her parents believe that relentless competitiveness explains why their daughter overcame her knee injury to become the rock of Maryland’s 26-3 team this season.
Jones credited Brionna for helping her through the rehabilitation that preceded her freshman season. “There will be a brighter day,” big sister always said after she ran those arena stairs. But their mother suggested that’s too tidy a spin.
“There is no help for that feeling,” Sanciarhea Jones said. “They can talk about it, what the pain and the surgery are going to be like. But that feeling is something you never want to see your child go through. I think it made her a stronger person.”
From a skills standpoint, Jones’ parents are just now seeing the all-around game that made her such a terror in high school. Though she has primarily played inside at Maryland, the 6-foot-2 forward is not the tower of power that her sister was for the Terps. She’s in her element playing a face-up game from the wing and feels comfortable bringing the ball up-court in a pinch.
In the future, the Jones siblings will surely appreciate the collective tale they’ve spun. Brionna has played two seasons for the WNBA’s Connecticut Suns and is currently patrolling the paint for Nadezhda Orenburg in the Russian Premier League. Jarred is the second-leading scorer and leading rebounder on his professional team in Finland. Younger brother Jordon — yes, he tore his ACL as well — is playing for Scotland Campus, a prep school in Pennsylvania, with an eye on earning a college scholarship for next season. Stephanie hopes to play in the WNBA after she finishes her Maryland career next season.
“I know Coach Frese always says, ‘Hey Mike, can you have another one?’ ” Jones’ father said with a chuckle.
But he’s quick to note that Stephanie has created an independent legacy, on track to pass 1,000 career points at Maryland despite the fact she wasn’t fully healthy as a freshman.
“She’s done it her own way,” he said.