Maryland women’s basketball’s 2018-19 season had just ended on the Terrapins’ home Xfinity Center floor.
Near the conclusion of the postgame news conference, guard Kaila Charles was asked what she would work to improve during the long offseason.
“Everything,” the Terrapins’ most talented player replied after her team’s 85-80 loss to UCLA in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
The ultra-competitive Charles, a consensus All-America performer, is primed for her best season on what should be Maryland’s best team in recent years. And that’s saying something — on both counts.
The 6-foot-1 senior is one of five returning starters back from last year’s 29-5 team. A consensus top-five recruiting class comes aboard, too, and suddenly there’s a window of opportunity for a program that always seems to be in contention to ease back to the very top.
“I don’t think our expectations ever change, but I do think this year may be compared to a couple in the last few years, we have all the pieces,” said head coach Brenda Frese, who can look up in the Xfinity rafters and see the two Final Four banners and one national championship banner placed there by her teams during her first 17 years on the job.
Asked if she thought this young team — seven of the 12 eligible players are freshmen or sophomores — has the talent to return to the Final Four for the first time since 2015, Frese simply said, “We do.”
It starts with Charles, a unanimous first-team All-Big Ten selection as a junior, when she averaged 17.0 points, 6.7 rebounds and shot 48.6 percent from the field and 80.5 percent from the free-throw line, numbers that all ranked among conference leaders.
“She’s a senior, the captain for us, a Maryland girl, she just represents everything we stand for,” Frese said. “She knows what we expect and really competes at the highest level. We go where she goes.”
The irony is Charles, a Glenn Dale, Md., native and Riverdale Baptist graduate, didn’t always want to be a Terrapin.
“I didn’t want to stay at home,” Charles said. “I wanted a different experience because I had been in Maryland my whole life.”
But Frese wasn’t about to lose a top player from her backyard to any of the array of national programs wooing Charles.
“We just hung around and hung around and hung around,” Frese laughed. “She saw us enough, I think, as she went through the recruiting process. She had to do due diligence to make sure she had no regrets. I think she saw that she didn’t have to go far from home to get everything she was looking for.”
The introspective Charles came to her decision.
“My coach is great and my teammates are caring and competitive,” Charles said. “That’s what I was looking for. And it just so happened to be 15 minutes from home. It has been the best of both worlds. I can be challenged and be on my own, but I can also just go home and be a baby with my family.”
In College Park, Md., though, Charles has to be big sister to a lot of younger players.
“[Leading] isn’t a burden for Kaila because she has had to lead as a young player for us,” Frese said. “I think she has naturally evolved into that. Now it’s seamless.”
With Charles, Stephanie Jones (an honorable mention All-Big Ten choice), Blair Watson and sharpshooter Sara Vujacic, Frese has a reliable senior class to carry the leadership load during the 2019-20 season, which tips off Oct. 25 with a 6 p.m. exhibition against California of Pennsylvania. The regular season begins Nov. 5 against Wagner with an 11 a.m. start, and the early-season highlight is a Nov. 10 home tilt against powerful South Carolina at 3 p.m.
Jones, emerging from the shadow of her older sister, former All-American Brionna, has long done the little things to make Maryland better. Watson, who last year was battling back from a knee injury suffered during the 2017-18 season, could finally regain her pre-injury form and be a real ‘X’ factor with her experience, clutch perimeter shooting and feel for the game.
The seniors also have proven players around them. Sophomore guard Taylor Mikesell, who toured with Team USA to the Pan American Games in Peru, keeps adding to her game. She hit more 3-pointers (95) in a single season than any Terrapin, male or female, ever, and was Big Ten Freshman of the Year. The addition of some potent point guards should take her off the ball and allow her to focus on other parts of her maturing game.
The 6-foot-5 Shakira Austin was an honorable mention All-Big Ten pick and made the All-Defensive and All-Freshman squads. She could be the team’s most improved player, and that doesn’t bode well for the rest of the Big Ten.
“Shakira has gotten a lot stronger,” Frese said. “The first thing is she doesn’t look like a freshman anymore. She has spent a lot of time in the weight room and working in the offseason. That was probably the biggest piece for her.”
Austin is one of several tall Terrapins, a group that also includes center Olivia Owens (6-foot-4) and Jones (6-foot-2). That size should pair well with the Terps’ backcourt, which was bolstered by the additions of freshmen Diamond Miller, Ashley Owusu and Zoe Young.
“Our size, this is one of the biggest teams we’ve had in a long time,” Frese said. “So that is going to lend to a lot of things for us with our defense and our rebounding. We like to defend, rebound and run. Our size and speed, and the improvement in the backcourt with Diamond, Ashley and Zoe, we’ve got guards that can really get downhill.”
Miller is a coveted 6-foot-3 wing piece that will play a lot of positions off the bench. Owusu is a 6-foot point guard and one of the top incoming freshmen in the nation. Young is a 5-foot-10 “prototype point guard,” according to Frese. They’ll battle for playing time with junior Channise Lewis, who led the Big Ten in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.8) and was second in assists (5.4) last year. Lewis was slowed this summer by shin splints. The Terps’ roster should offer Frese plenty of depth to pick from, even with 6-foot-3 Tennessee transfer Mimi Collins sitting out.
Freshman Faith Masonius, a 6-foot-1 forward and coach’s daughter, has made a big impression, too. Her mother, Ellen, is the director of the New Jersey Belles youth basketball program.
“Faith probably has the highest basketball IQ of any kid that has come in here, and she has shown that early,” Frese said.
Update: Zoe Young reportedly suffered a torn ACL in practice recently, which ends her season.
Photo Credits: Courtesy of Maryland Athletics
Issue 258: October 2019