With a tenuous grasp on first place in the Big Ten, the Maryland women’s basketball team traveled to Purdue in late February needing to win and avoid even a stubbed toe.
The Terps were without senior forward Brianna Fraser, who’d sprained her ankle in their previous game. Olivia Owens, a seldom-used freshman center, hadn’t made the trip because of a sinus infection. And then, within the first three minutes, junior forward Stephanie Jones (Aberdeen) was called for two fouls against the Boilermakers. A nine-player roster was cut down to six for almost an entire half.
Inconsistency, inexperience and injuries could not deny the Terps a road victory or, later, their fourth regular-season conference title in five years, but they conspired to make a result like Monday’s NCAA tournament defeat inevitable. No. 6 seed UCLA’s 85-80 upset of third-seeded Maryland in College Park ended a season in which losses were rare but wins were rarely comprehensive. A 29-5 record was not enough to secure passage to the Sweet 16, the 2018-19 campaign ending in the second round for the third time in four years.
Coach Brenda Frese said afterward that the team’s championship goals never change from season to season. This offseason, expectations outside the program will. The Terps struggled at times in conference play to find the right player for the right position; next season, the challenge will be finding time for the nine players and five starters returning.
“Gosh, what a luxury,” Frese said. “I won’t know what to do myself. That [small roster] was a byproduct of a two-year hit when you have kids transfer out. We knew what it was moving forward, and I can’t say enough about the loyalty of the kids in our program and how hard they have fought for each other. … But you know, [I’m] excited for this group and what lies ahead for us.”
There is a lot to like. Junior wing Kaila Charles is one of five finalists for the Cheryl Miller Award, given to the nation's top small forward. Jones finished third in the Big Ten in field-goal percentage. Freshmen Taylor Mikesell, a guard, and Shakira Austin, a forward, set single-season program records for 3-pointers and blocks, respectively. With only Fraser lost to graduation, the Terps are set to return 90.1 percent of their scoring, 90.4 percent of their rebounding, 96.3 percent of their assists and 91.7 percent of their blocks.
The arrival of another accomplished recruiting class will expand the Terps’ roster, barring attrition, to 13 active players for the first time since 2016-17. While wings Diamond Miller and Faith Masonius, New Jersey’s top two senior recruits, should contend for immediate playing time, perhaps no position will be as scrutinized as point guard.
Though Mikesell often started games as the team’s primary ball-handler, Channise Lewis played over 26 minutes per game at point guard. The benefits of the sophomore’s presence were obvious — she finished No. 14 nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio — but so were the costs. Lewis’ poor outside shooting (26.4 percent) could handicap the half-court offense, and Frese remarked on the Terps’ lack of athleticism at certain positions, including guard, after the loss to the Bruins.
In incoming freshmen Ashley Owusu and Zoe Young, the coach has two potential first-year starters. Both committed in August 2017, months after point guard Destiny Slocum, coming off a splendid freshman season, announced she was transferring to Oregon State. Their impact could be comparable: Owusu is considered the nation’s top senior point guard recruit, and Young set tournament records for points, blocks and assists over two Iowa state title runs.
A roster crunch seems inevitable. If Mikesell returns to her more natural shooting guard position, how would the point guard depth chart shake out? And if all-conference selections Charles, Jones and Austin are also entrenched as starters, how would junior starter Blair Watson fit into the wing rotation? The competition, Frese said, will be “plentiful.”
There is room for improvement on offense, defense and in scheduling. According to analytics website Her Hoop Stats, Maryland finished with the nation's No. 22 offense and No. 23 defense, the Terps’ efficiency dragged down by poor offensive rebounding and mediocre 3-point-shooting defense. They also played just three games against teams ranked among the NCAA’s top 25 in Rating Percentage Index, routing South Carolina but losing twice to Iowa.
Even with the Terps’ departure from the NCAA tournament, Frese was not especially discouraged Monday night. Perhaps she knew that of the 10 teams ranked in the final Associated Press regular-season poll, only Maryland was not expected to lose cornerstone pieces to graduation or the WNBA draft. (Oregon guard Sabrina Ionescu could change that if she returns for her senior year.)
That will not be enough to get the Terps into the Sweet 16, much less the Final Four, and Charles and Jones seemed to recognize as much. Asked about their personal goals for offseason improvements, both said, “Everything.” Their team hadn’t been good enough to beat a No. 6 seed. Ahead of their final year in College Park, their aim needed to be higher.