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Maryland women’s basketball hoping young players, transfers can fill some gaps for defending Big Ten champs

For all of the unfamiliar hurdles the Maryland women’s basketball program will face this season – the spectre of the coronavirus pandemic, a schedule abbreviated by the current health scare, the loss of seven players from last year’s squad – coach Brenda Frese finds comfort in one aspect.

“As competitive as last year’s team was — and they were and they were super talented — there’s been no dropoff,” she said Thursday afternoon. “It’s been even higher quite honestly. So that’s been pretty exciting.”

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The last time the Terps were on the floor, they were walking off the court at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis as Big Ten tournament champions for the fourth time in the past six years. With a 28-4 overall record, that squad had inserted itself into the conversation for one of the NCAA tournament’s four No. 1 seeds.

But then the COVID-19 outbreak wreaked havoc on the sports landscape, leaving Frese and her players with an unsatisfactory ending.

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“You feel terrible for your seniors, their last run,” she said of the five-player class that included a trio of starters in guards Kaila Charles and Blair Watson and forward Stephanie Jones (Aberdeen). “When you see a team that has the chance to maybe make a Final Four run, we felt strong that we were going to be a No. 1 seed and had put ourselves in a great position for the NCAA tournament. So that was disappointing. But I’m a big believer that you can control what you can control, and when we spoke to the team, at least we got to have a great taste in our mouths walking off the court with confetti falling down on our faces with the Big Ten championship and then understanding that there were a lot bigger issues out there and understanding that through this pandemic, we had to be safe.”

Overcoming the graduations of Charles (the team’s leading scorer and rebounder at 14.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game, respectively), Jones (11.3 points and 6.2 rebounds), and Watson (7.8 points and a team-leading 2.9 steals) will be compounded by the transfers of junior forward Shakira Austin and junior shooting guard Taylor Mikesell. Austin, who averaged 12.0 points and 6.8 rebounds, left for Ole Miss, and Mikesell, who scored 11.2 points and led the team in three-pointers with 90, departed for Oregon.

But Maryland’s cupboard isn’t bare. Guard Katie Benzan, who left Harvard with career averages of 13.7 points, 4.1 assists, and a .393 3-point field-goal percentage, is expected to start, and redshirt sophomore forward Mimi Collins will play after sitting out last season after transferring from Tennessee, where she averaged 5.5 points and 3.4 rebounds.

The program is still awaiting eligibility clearance from the NCAA for senior guard Chloe Bibby, who compiled 7.5 points and 5.2 rebounds last winter at Mississippi State. Forward Alaysia Styles, who averaged 8.4 points and 2.8 rebounds in 2018-19 at California, will exhaust a graduate season with the Terps and will join the team sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Those players will join a core group that includes sophomore point guard and Big Ten Freshman of the Year Ashley Owusu (12.0 points and a team-leading 5.4 assists), sophomore guard Diamond Miller (7.7 points and 3.2 rebounds), and freshman forward Angel Reese (No. 2 player in the Class of 2020 ranked by ESPN).

“Angel Reese is as good as advertised, if not better,” Frese said of the Baltimore resident and St. Frances graduate. “She is playing at a level that is pretty special to see in a freshman coming in. Super dynamic between her scoring, her rebounding, her ability to get other people shots, and just her confidence level has been tremendous to see. When you look at that Big Three with Ashley, Diamond and Angel and then if you’re able to add in some experience with Chloe and Katie and some of the depth on the team – I mean, we haven’t even talked about Mimi Collins coming in with her redshirt year – there’s a lot of exciting pieces that we’re going to be able to put together.”

Six of the 10 players on the current roster are true sophomores and freshmen, but Frese said their relative lack of experience at the NCAA Division I level doesn’t bother her.

“A lot of times, I’ve always used, ‘Age is just a number,’” she said. “When you look at that freshmen and sophomore class, those players have had a lot of games where they have played at a really high level, whether it be high school AAU and now coming into Maryland. So I think those moments have prepared them for now. And then you utilize your vets to kind of weather the storm and be able to share with them when there are some ups and downs within your season. But all indications with those young freshmen and sophomores is that they’ve been doing a tremendous job.”

More worrisome to Frese is a smaller-than-usual roster. In addition to Bibby, redshirt freshman Zoe Young, the USA Today Player of the Year in Iowa, is unavailable after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. She missed all of last season after tearing her ACL during a preseason practice in October 2019.

Last year’s team also didn’t have the services of redshirt junior point guard Channise Lewis after she tore the lateral meniscus in her left knee during a scrimmage in October 2019.

“It’s a big concern,” Frese said of the lack of depth. “We lost Zoe and Channise last year with the knee injuries. So you don’t know what lies ahead there as well as with COVID. But we can only control what we can control. We are hoping to get Zoe back into the mix at some point because if we had a game, we would be playing nine.”

The Terps' full schedule has not yet been finalized, but they will open the season at the Gulf Coast Showcase on Thanksgiving weekend in Estero, Florida. They are scheduled to meet Davidson (16-15 in 2019-20) on Friday, Nov. 27 at 2:30 p.m., Missouri Valley Conference champion Missouri State (26-4) on Saturday, Nov. 28 at 5:30 p.m., and Arkansas (24-8) on Sunday, Nov. 29 at 5:30 p.m.

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Frese said she is intrigued as anyone about her current team’s identity.

“I don’t think you 100% know where your team is going to be until you can get into games and you have an idea what that is,” she said. “Are you going to be a dominant rebounding team? Are you going to be a team that gets a lot of steals? So some of that is going to take time to see kind of where we’re at once we get some games under our belt.”

Gulf Coast Showcase

Estero, Florida

  • Maryland vs. Davidson, Nov. 27, 2:30 p.m.
  • Maryland vs. Missouri State, Nov. 28, 5:30 p.m.
  • Maryland vs. Arkansas, Nov. 29, 5:30 p.m.

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