University of Maryland womens basketball players Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Brionna Jones look back on their playing careers at the school during their final college season. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun video)
COLLEGE PARK — Four years of growing up in Xfinity Center, and they had never stared at the banners from this vantage point. The names — Coleman, Toliver, Doron, Bullett — looked back at them on eye level.
As Brionna Jones and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough posed for photos on a catwalk above the arena where they've won 63 games and lost just five, their position seemed fitting. The two seniors are now immense figures in the story of Maryland women's basketball, just like the All-Americans who preceded them to the rafters.
On Sunday, when the Terps host Minnesota, that status will be formalized. A veil will drop to reveal their jerseys, residing in the pantheon.
It was hardly clear that would be the case when Jones and Walker-Kimbrough arrived in College Park in the summer of 2013. They were solid prospects but hardly the cream of the crop if you perused ESPN's HoopGurlz rankings. Jones was rehabilitating a bum knee and needed to lose 40 pounds. Walker-Kimbrough was a toothpick who had only recently settled on basketball as her primary sport. Coach Brenda Frese had to keep shouting that greatness was within her reach, because Walker-Kimbrough didn't always believe it herself.
But even as chaos sometimes reigned around them, the pair maintained a relentless ascent. Walker-Kimbrough became the greatest sharpshooter in the history of the program, Jones the surest two points in the women's college game.
"They're both extremely competitive, Shatori outwardly and Bri inwardly," Frese said, reflecting on her senior stars. "You see that consistency in the way they prepare — the first to arrive for workouts and the last to leave."
Jones and Walker-Kimbrough have led such dogged, head-down lives that they seem almost befuddled by how high they've climbed now that they're down to a handful of college games.
"I'm pretty sure we're more excited than they are," freshman Kaila Charles said of the impending jersey ceremony.
As they sat together at the arena on a recent afternoon, Jones asked Walker-Kimbrough if she'd begun composing her Senior Day remarks. Walker-Kimbrough raised an eyebrow and gave her friend a thumbs down.
"It still hasn't hit me," she said. "People ask me how it felt to hear that my jersey would be in the rafters. But it probably won't hit me until I actually see it up there or it's actually over."
Said Jones: "I think the games winding down, that part is hitting me. But the part about the rafters, I think that like Shatori, when I see it, that's when it will sink in."
Jones and Walker-Kimbrough, who first met when they visited College Park as high school juniors, have seen just about everything in their four years. As freshmen, they played with perhaps the greatest player in program history, Alyssa Thomas. As sophomores, they joined with classmate Lexie Brown to lead the Terps to a second straight Final Four. The trio seemed poised for another two runs, but Brown abruptly transferred to Duke and the Terps lost a second-round stunner to Washington in last year's NCAA tournament.
Jones and Walker-Kimbrough are now down to their last shot. They're clear leaders on and off the court for a team stocked with talented freshmen and sophomores. And the Terps are again positioned to snare a high seed for the tournament.
"They've seen a lot of change," Frese said. "And to watch how they've adapted to it has been remarkable."
Andrea Kimbrough is not sure how her daughter developed such seriousness of purpose. But it was evident even when Shatori was a young child growing up in Aliquippa, Pa., about 30 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh. Andrea recalled giving her daughter a map so she could learn navigation and watched as Shatori shredded the thing in her attempts to master the concept.
Andrea enrolled her daughter in a procession of ballet, tap dancing and piano classes. "I was going to make a dancer or the next Alicia Keys," she said, laughing. Yet Shatori daily found her way to a basketball court behind the family home. Often, she returned toting worn, deflated balls, which she would then rehabilitate. Andrea, a Beaver County probation officer, still has her daughter's reclamation projects.
"I wish I was as disciplined as she is," she said.
Not that Walker-Kimbrough is a one-note character. Teammates widely rate her the funniest player in the program. For example, after a dispiriting loss at Ohio State on Monday, she lightened the mood by cracking jokes about a rip in her mother's jeans.
Walker-Kimbrough grew into an outstanding three-sport athlete at Hopewell High, where she was an all-state volleyball player and triple jumper in addition to the best basketball prospect in the Pittsburgh area. Despite her work ethic and obvious gifts, however, she did not regard herself as a future Division I star. That's where Frese, whom she'd first met at a youth basketball camp on Maryland's campus, came in.
"I knew from the moment I started recruiting her that her ceiling was going to be so high," the Maryland coach recalled.
She just needed to convince Walker-Kimbrough, who showed up as a skinny bundle of nerves with terrible sleep habits and a tendency to criticize herself for not cracking the starting lineup immediately.
"You wondered, 'Is she going to survive this?'" Frese said. "She just constantly looked in a state of duress."
So the coach built her player up relentlessly, frequently saying Maryland could not reach its potential if Walker-Kimbrough did not play with maximum swagger.
"She gave me the confidence when many coaches didn't," Walker-Kimbrough said. "I wouldn't want to play for any other coach in the world. I would not be sitting here talking if it were not for that lady."
She did survive, of course, growing from Maryland's most potent threat off the bench as a freshman to an All-Big Ten performer as a sophomore. As a junior, the player once known for her speed and knifing drives made a remarkable 54.5 percent of her 3-pointers. On Monday, she became just the fifth Terp to score 2,000 or more career points.
Not even Walker-Kimbrough, however, has increased her production as inexorably as Jones.
The 6-foot-3 center grew up in Havre de Grace at the heart of a basketball-mad family. Her father, Mike, is 6-7 and played at the University of Hartford. Her mother, Sanciarhea, is 6-0 and played volleyball at East Texas State. Her older brother, Jarred, who plays at Loyola Maryland, never failed to come at her hard as they fired baskets on the dirt and grass court in back of the Jones house.
Even then, Brionna played with a perpetual smile. Mike Jones chuckled, recounting a video he shot of her on her first team. The coach told Brionna and her teammates to keep their hands up on defense. So at first opportunity, she sprinted down the court, threw her arms straight in the air and flashed the biggest grin imaginable.
"Very cute," her father said.
Jones' steady visage masks a roaring internal fire. She was The Baltimore Sun's All-Metro Player of the Year as a junior at Aberdeen High but missed most of her senior season after she tore the ACL in her right knee.
The injury, along with concerns about her weight, led scouts to underrate Jones compared with girls she outplayed on the summer circuit. The torn ACL also cost her chances to score 2,000 career points and lead Aberdeen to a second straight state title.
On the other hand, with basketball temporarily out of her life, Jones realized how deeply she cared about the sport. And she directed that pent-up energy into 7:30 a.m. weightlifting sessions and long runs through the summer heat.
"I just wanted to get back to being myself," she said.
Walker-Kimbrough's strongest early memories of Jones involve watching her run up and down, up and down the stairs at Xfinity Center. Not only did she need to strengthen her knee, but she also needed to get into shape to keep up with Frese's fast-paced offense.
"She was in here for hours every day," Walker-Kimbrough said, the respect obvious in her tone. "I was thinking my workouts were hard. But then I was back at the dorm getting rest, and she was still here. I don't even know how she got through that."
Jones is now a counselor to her younger sister, Stephanie, a Maryland freshman who's, incredibly, coming back from a torn ACL.
The Jones of today bears only a mild resemblance to the soft-faced kid who came out of Harford County. She has chiseled herself into a post player who can't be moved off her favorite spots near the basket. And her hands, always her secret weapon, snag the most suspect entry passes. Jones even led the team in steals until Walker-Kimbrough recently passed her.
"I love seeing those before-and-after pictures," Frese said. "They show the pride she took in buying into what we asked of her in this program."
Sunday will be a time for powerful emotions in the two seniors' families.
Andrea Kimbrough, who becomes so nervous during her daughter's games that she usually hides in the bowels of the arena, plans to arrive with 70 friends and family members on a chartered bus from Aliquippa.
She'll think of the daily breakfasts she shared with Shatori, when they'd talk about the future and how basketball could be a passport to the world.
Mike Jones will remember his eldest daughter grinding away to rebuild the strength in her knee and the doubters who said she'd never play at Maryland, much less earn a spot in the rafters.
"I grew up in Maryland, and I don't even have words for what it's going to be like to see that," he said. "I'm going to think about the long journey. It's going to all cycle through my mind. It wasn't easy."
Jones, a kinesiology major, plans to attend medical school and become a pediatrician once she sets aside her sneakers. Walker-Kimbrough, a sociology major, sees law school as a long-range possibility.
They've squeezed just about everything they can out of their Maryland years, and now their friendship will continue into realms beyond.
Frese's former stars stay in touch, no matter where they land in the basketball world, and Jones and Walker-Kimbrough expect to cross paths for many years as they both pursue professional careers in the WNBA and overseas.
"Even if we wanted to get away from each other," Walker-Kimbrough said, "I don't think that would work."