Stopping Brionna Jones the challenge Maryland throws at West Virginia in NCAA second round
Before the start of what might be the most impressive season in Maryland women's basketball history, Brionna Jones scored two points that did not count. This was the summertime. Jenna Staiti remembers it as if it were yesterday.
It was practice, the freshman's first against the All-America senior center. Staiti considered her options. Jones (Aberdeen) is 6 feet 3 and harder to displace than a well-stocked refrigerator. Staiti is 6-6, tallest on the team by a few inches. She'd averaged over four blocks per game as a senior in high school. Why front the post? Jones, she resolved, would have to score over her.
"She buried me right then and there," Staiti recalled Friday. Catch, drop step, right-handed layup, like it was nothing. "And I was like: 'Oh, god. This is going to be a long year.'"
Staiti is both cursed and blessed. The bad: She has had to battle Jones almost daily in practice since the fall, a Sisyphean task. The good: They play for the same team. And at this point in the season, with the No. 3 seed Terps (31-2) hosting No. 6 seed West Virginia (24-10) on Sunday in the NCAA tournament, a spot in the Sweet 16 on the line, there are probably enough post defenders across the country who have had their days ruined by Jones to form a support group.
Their undoing is familiar to Staiti, the 2016 Gatorade State Player of the Year in Georgia: They don't make many Brionna Joneses in Forsyth County, Ga.
How do you prepare for someone so efficient (Division I-best 69.6 percent field-goal accuracy)? Or prolific (28 points short shy of Maryland's single-season scoring record)? Or strong on the glass (28 rebounds from the program's best single-season mark)?
Ask opposing coaches, and most will just laugh.
"You can't," Loyola Maryland coach Joe Logan said after Jones had 25 points and 14 rebounds in a mid-December Terps win. "We can't. Some people will bring in guys. We do have a male scout team, but even those guys aren't as big or as strong."
Even opponents whose scout team can produce a facsimile of Jones in practice might run into trouble in March. Aaron Roussell, coach of Patriot League champion Bucknell, did not have his scout team at his disposal ahead of the No. 14 seed Bison's first-round game Friday against the Terps; the school's students were on spring break.
Normally, this would not have mattered. Bucknell's three starting forwards are 6-1, 6-2 and 6-3, "about as big as you can get" for a mid-major, Roussell said. But because Jones is different, the team's defense had to be as well.
"We were talking about the double [team] yesterday in practice," Roussell said after Jones went 11-for-17 for 25 points in a 103-61 win, "and you'd have thought our kids were talking a foreign language."
The Mountaineers have had less than 48 hours to prepare for Jones (20.0 points, 10.7 rebounds per game). Coach Mike Carey's concerns are less about how to simulate her in practice than they are about stopping the genuine article. But if familiarity helps, they are better off than most opponents.
West Virginia center Lanay Montgomery, a 6-5 Big 12 All-Defensive Team member, played with Jones for a year in their Amateur Athletic Union days. She praised her former teammate, but declared herself ready for the challenge.
Carey will dispatch help to Montgomery, just in case: with pressure from the defender on the passer-looking inside, and then, should the post entry reach Jones, from the weak-side defender as well.
"It takes three people to guard her," Carey said. "If we are letting her pin us deep, we are not doing a good job on defense at all. We have to move her away from the rim. If she gets that deep, she is unstoppable."
Maryland coach Brenda Frese said Jones this season has played "just so much slower." She meant it as a compliment, but it is also an explanation for Jones' dominance. She can score over either shoulder now. Double teams do not concern her. In the Terps' Big Ten tournament semifinal win over Michigan State, she had 32 points, nine rebounds and, maybe most impressively, six assists and no turnovers. Frese is surprised Jones hasn't had a triple double yet.
Even in College Park, months of study and experimentation and hard work have revealed no certified Jones-stopper in Terps practices.
As for which teammate can even slow her? Frese laughed. She has heard less ridiculous questions. "I mean, honestly, there is no one."