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NCAA tournament: Maryland's Ieshia Small has become an unlikely, atypical player-coach

Maryland's Ieshia Small, center, learns how to spin the ball on her finger during a surprise visit from Harlem Globetrotters' Zeus McClurkin before the NCAA selection show Monday at Xfinity Center in College Park.
Maryland's Ieshia Small, center, learns how to spin the ball on her finger during a surprise visit from Harlem Globetrotters' Zeus McClurkin before the NCAA selection show Monday at Xfinity Center in College Park. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

This spring, the Maryland club men’s basketball team traveled to Richmond, Va., for a game without its head coach. At halftime, the coach called to check in. The game wasn’t going well. The team was playing as if, well, its coach was missing.

The coach wanted to know more, so the coach, put on speakerphone for the group of sweaty, frustrated young men lingering and listening in a gym hallway, started to ask questions. Who was scoring well? Who did the other team have?

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“And then she made an adjustment without even being able to see what's going on on the court,” said junior Andrew Tawiah, the club’s president and a former boys basketball standout at Owings Mills. “She told us immediately what we should do.”

That the team ended up winning is no surprise. The team’s coach, Ieshia Small, has won everywhere she’s been. But for all the places the Maryland women’s team’s dynamic senior wing has found herself in her career — atop recruiting boards as a high school star, at Baylor as an unhappy underclassman, on the Big Ten Network as the conference’s Sixth Player of the Year this season — a coach’s box at a men’s game was maybe the least expected.

“I always was told: Whatever you give into the world, that's how much you get back. And that's what I'm trying to do,” said Small, whose fifth-seeded Terps face No. 12 Princeton in the first round of the NCAA tournament Friday in Raleigh, N.C. But, she added: “I never saw myself as a coach at all, to be honest.”

Neither did Tawiah. When the political-science major took over as club president two years ago, he became its de facto player-coach. Tawiah, an aspiring lawyer, was uncomfortable with the power. How could he hold teammates accountable, he wondered, if there was no one watching over him? The club had numbers but no power in them. Dozens of kids would come out to practice each week, often infrequently, and not know how to play together in games. Sometimes they didn’t even know one another’s names.

Maryland guard Ieshia Small, left, and women's coach Brenda Frese share laugh as they watch the NCAA tournament selection show. Guard Kristen Confroy is at right. Small, the Big Ten Sixth Player of the Year, has taken charge of a men's club team on campus, with great success.
Maryland guard Ieshia Small, left, and women's coach Brenda Frese share laugh as they watch the NCAA tournament selection show. Guard Kristen Confroy is at right. Small, the Big Ten Sixth Player of the Year, has taken charge of a men's club team on campus, with great success. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

Abdicating his coaching duties, Tawiah advertised the position online and on social media. One of the first responses was from a friend.

“As soon as Ieshia replied, I was like: ‘I don't even have to interview her. She's definitely going to be the most qualified candidate,’ ” Tawiah recalled.

They were already on one Maryland team together. In 2015-16, Small, a former blue-chip recruit from Miami, was sitting out the year in College Park after transferring from Baylor. That year, Tawiah enrolled at Maryland and joined the women’s scout team, one of a handful of male students the Terps use to prepare for opponents and sharpen their rotation.

Over time, Tawiah and Small became friends, a bond forged by hoops but strengthened by humility. In the fall, Tawiah and the club team hosted an “all-star” game that raised over $500 for Catherine's Family and Youth Services. Small throughout her career has volunteered for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. She’s now collecting used Maryland gear to donate to the foster home that took Small in after her mother died when she was 16.

So when Small saw her friend’s team needed a coach, she thought of the help she could offer and what the role might offer her.

Harlem Globetrotters' Zeus McClurkin pays a surprise visit to several University of Maryland women's basketball Tteam members before the team and fans gather to watch the NCAA selection show. (Kenneht K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)

“It's not really me trying to be the boss, so to speak,” Small said, “but just trying to teach people to learn how to teach other people.”

The roster she took over did not lack for talent — Tawiah had offers to play in Division II, other players were his teammates on the women’s scout squad, and many had held their own in the area’s most competitive high school leagues. The team’s culture was the problem. It was lackadaisical, permissive.

Small started to treat players, Tawiah said, “like we’re real basketball players.” They had to stretch. They were expected to be in shape. At practice, she’d look to bring along a Terps teammate and teach the drills coach Brenda Frese had made them learn. In games, they’d run “Point,” “Nose,” “Thumbs,” all sets borrowed from Maryland’s offensive playbook.

Only, the losing continued. The season before, the team had finished 5-12. Six games into the fall, Small was winless in her coaching career. A team meeting was called.

“One of the players, he gets up and says: 'Look, Ieshia, you're telling us that we have to be at every single practice and you're making us run hard and you're holding us to a standard that we really can't live up to,’ ” Tawiah recalled.

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If the Terps win, they would advance to face the North Carolina State-Elon winner.

Small laughed. Tawiah remembers laughing, too. She had summoned the energy after Frese’s three-hour practices to join the club’s nighttime workouts most weeks. She was a Division I athlete making time for a club team. What was their excuse?

“If I’m able to do it,” Small said, “I know y’all able to do it.”

Said Frese: “When you play [the game] at this level, you already garner a level of respect, I'm sure, from the guys that are on her team.”

As the team started to learn how to win, Small’s own coaching self-discovery surprised her. She wasn’t as quick to offer affirmations as Frese, nor was she as sensitive to her team’s sensitivities as she perhaps thought.

Early in her tenure, Small said players would look to her like an eager-to-please child after a made layup or defensive stand. “I'm like, 'No, you're supposed to do that. That's the reason why you're on the team,’ ” she said. Another time, after a player fouled up his duties in practice, she asked him, “Boy, what are you doing?” Small later was told that the seemingly innocuous name-calling had hurt his feelings.

Between the graduation of two senior All-Americans and the abrupt transfer of a freshman sensation, Maryland women's basketball endured an unsettled offseason. But sophomore guard Kaila Charles wasted little time time filling the void as Brenda Frese's next star.

“I'm just like, ‘Wow, these are some sensitive dudes,’ ” she said. “I really have to watch what I say around them.”

Because of Maryland’s demanding road schedule in Big Ten play, Small has been something of an absentee club coach in recent weeks, delegating responsibility to her two female assistant coaches. The team is 8-7 heading into its regular-season finale against Georgetown this weekend, just out of the playoff picture, and Tawiah is already dreading having to replace Small. Hers is an “elite-level” basketball mind, he said.

That has surprised no one: Small’s adoptive mother, Kimberly Davis-Powell, oversees an Amateur Athletic Union program in Florida. Still, Small’s not sure she wants to make coaching a career — or at least not as sure as the possible successor on her club team.

Terps sophomore star Kaila Charles, a helping hand at some of the club’s practices, has been asked whether she’d want to step in as coach next season. She said she’s considering the possibility. She’s thought about one day leading a team after a possible professional career. She also knows the standard Small has set. Because Tawiah has told the senior as much at practice.

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“They were like, ‘We need you,’ ” Charles said, laughing. “ ‘Please come back.’ ”

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