The Maryland women’s basketball team’s offseason had suffered enough indignities already: the sting of an NCAA tournament loss to a double-digit seed in the Sweet 16, the departure of two All-Americans, the transfer of a National Freshman of the Year.
Then the Terps got to Taiwan for August’s World University Games and saw their hotel accommodations. Eight players in one small suite. A ninth player, lodging in the floor above, popping in regularly. Outside temperatures of 95 degrees, with 85 percent humidity. Two bathrooms.
“Eight girls for two weeks in one room really forces you to hate each other,” senior guard Kristen Confroy said Tuesday at the team’s media day, “or come together.”
Should Maryland handle the perils of the Big Ten Conference and a demanding nonleague schedule as well as the Terps handled their teammates’ snoring, early-morning music habits and allocation of the hotel’s hot water, Brenda Frese will be a happy coach.
Her team doesn’t figure to be as good or as deep as last year’s 32-win behemoth. But after a wave of change both expected and unexpected recalibrated expectations in College Park — Maryland, for the first time since joining the Big Ten, is not the preseason favorite — Frese said she can at least come to rely on chemistry. Players have told her that this is the closest they’ve felt to one another in their Terps careers.
How much can a copacetic locker room help in replacing the combined loss of over 57 points per game? Ask again in March. But if Taiwan didn’t provoke any drama, the hope is that losses probably won’t, either.
“I marveled at the eight of them that you never felt an issue, saw an issue, heard an issue of just how they managed that whole dynamic,” Frese said. “I thought they were remarkable in terms of how they handled that.”
Sophomore wing Blair Watson didn’t expect to wake up to the sight of senior guard Iesha Small’s face every morning in Taipei. When Maryland hits the road for away games during the regular season, it’s normally two Terps to a room, a manageable existence.
Life in Taiwan, one of the most densely populated territories in the world, was more cramped. In Maryland’s “master” room were Watson, Small, Confroy and freshman guard Channise Lewis. In one adjoining room were sophomore wing Kaila Charles and junior forward Brianna Fraser. In the other were sophomore wing Stephanie Jones (Aberdeen) and sophomore guard Sarah Myers. When junior forward Aja Ellison wasn’t upstairs in her bed, sleeping, she was joining in on the fun.
Living in a country where no one could speak the language, “it was really like almost being in a dorm or going camping,” Jones said.
The Terps played a lot of card games and did homework. They danced to music after games and listened in the early-morning hours, Charles and Fraser’s just-out-of-bed playlist serving, on some days, as a wakeup call for Jones. Watson, after some time, got used to Small’s snoring. And somehow, they figured out how to make the bathroom math work.
“Four girls in one bathroom is just honestly insane,” Watson said.
Added Jones: “You had to kind of plan it. You'd be like: ‘OK, it's my time to go first today. You got first tomorrow.’ ”
Through five wins, one loss and two friendlies, they learned to live with one another, just as they’ll learn to live without graduated seniors Brionna Jones (Aberdeen) and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and star point guard Destiny Slocum, one of three Maryland underclassmen to transfer this offseason. The focus ahead of their Nov. 10 season opener against Albany is not on avenging March’s season-ending 77-63 loss to No. 10 seed Oregon. It’s more fundamental. As Confroy put it: “What is our team going to look like this year?”
“I think we're more equipped to handle a challenge,” said Charles, a preseason All-Big Ten selection and the team’s leading returning scorer (9.7 points per game). “Especially us being counted out so early. We've definitely come together, especially last year with our losses, and we've gotten closer. So I feel like the grit and the heart of this team has definitely gotten stronger.”
In August, Frese said she had an aha moment. This is her 16th season at Maryland. Her Terps have made all but one NCAA tournament in that time, advancing to at least the second round every time. As much as losing a team cornerstone like Slocum perhaps stung, she reasoned that it would not shake the program’s foundation.
The players who have remained are there because they want to be there, Frese said. The Terps could endure change so long as it wasn’t in their commitments to one another.
“And I really believe the ones that stick through highs and lows — not everything's going to be a high, there's going to be tough times — but that they're here and belong for the right reasons,” she said.
Note: Sophomore wing Eleanna Christinaki, who transferred to Maryland midseason from Florida, will first be eligible for the team’s Dec. 20 game against Coppin State. A native of Greece, Christinaki did not represent the United States in Maryland’s World University Games but did play for Greece’s senior team this summer in FIBA EuroBasket.