Freshman Ashley Owusu dribbled out the final seconds of the Big Ten women’s basketball tournament and ultimately what would be the final seconds of the Maryland basketball season earlier this month in Indianapolis.
The Terrapins claimed an 82-65 victory against Ohio State in that title game, and a few days later learned along with everyone else that there would be no NCAA Tournament appearance for them even as one of the nation’s hottest teams, with 17 consecutive wins and a 28-4 overall record.
Owusu hoisted the conference tournament MVP trophy, and Terrapin seniors who were decidedly on a mission after back-to-back Big Ten title game losses were ebullient at their success together.
“This one is incredibly special because when you’ve had a couple of years where you haven’t been standing up there and confetti falling on you when you go off the court, you just realize how difficult it is,” head coach Brenda Frese said immediately after the game. “I think it’s even more because this group had to sacrifice so much to be able to put themselves in position to be successful.”
Perhaps no Terp sacrificed as much as sophomore guard Taylor Mikesell, the sharpshooter from Massillon, Ohio, who moved over to play more point this season. She took on a role with less shooting — what she does best — and more responsibility making sure everyone else was involved offensively. Her sacrifice was necessitated after returning point guard Channise Lewis went down with a knee injury before the first 2019-20 game was ever played.
“It’s just like the ultimate sacrifice, the selflessness to run the team first before worrying about [her] offense,” said Frese earlier in the season.
As Maryland moved into Big Ten play this winter, Frese tried something new, moving Owusu from the starting lineup and starting Mikesell, an All-Big Ten performer a year ago, over to starting point guard. The move helped Mikesell start to break out of a sophomore shooting slump — that wasn’t her main concern anymore — and made Owusu a deadly weapon who came in to change the pace of games. Soon, Maryland was burying Big Ten opponents and seemed destined for a No. 1 seed on the scratched Big Dance card.
Frese employed multiple different lineups this season, looking for the right mix among her nine healthy, eligible players. It’s significant that Mikesell and unanimous first-team All-Big Ten guard Kaila Charles were the only Terps to start every game, each indispensable in their own way.
Charles was one of three four-year seniors on the team along with Stephanie Jones, who earned second-team All-Big Ten honors, and Blair Watson, who was selected to the Big Ten’s all-defensive team. The three hefted the Big Ten Tournament championship trophy as freshmen, and then watched across the floor as other teams did so the last two years.
“The whole year, we fought hard,” Charles said. “It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it. I love the fact that we did this together. It wasn’t just one person, it was everybody, somebody different every night, and yeah, it’s amazing. I’m glad that we finally won it. … We had a big chip on our shoulder. We were motivated, and we got the ‘W,’ and we went out with a bang.”
That bang may also have signaled some big threes from Mikesell in the championship game, four of them for 12 points as Maryland pulled away. Jones had 18 points and 10 rebounds. Owusu added 17 points and a career-high 11 assists, doing most of her damage in transition after Terrapins stops at the defensive end.
Owusu, deservedly, drew most of the accolades, but her emergence as one of college basketball’s most dynamic players was truly set in motion by Mikesell’s willingness to step into a new role, one she was ready for this season even though circumstance thrust her into it.
“I have more experience under my belt,” Mikesell said. “Coming in, a lot of things were new to me last year. But just being confident, reading different situations when they’re thrown [at] me. Getting the feel for the game was the biggest thing I’ve taken away from last year [playing some point guard].”
Maryland’s best lineups had Owusu and Mikesell on the floor together, and they will be again next year along with a strong returning cast. Also returning are Lewis at point; Tennessee transfer Mimi Collins; injured redshirt freshman guard Zoe Young, and promising rising sophomores Diamond Miller and Faith Masonius. Baltimore’s Angel Reese (St. Frances), the highest rated recruit in Maryland women’s basketball history at No. 2 overall in the country, joins the mix as well.
Meanwhile, Charles tied Alyssa Thomas for the most career starts in school history with 135. She ranks in the top 10 in program history in scoring, rebounding, blocked shots, field goals made and free throws made.
Watson finished No. 3 in 3-pointers made with 194 during her career and No. 13 in steals with 209, including four in her final game. Aberdeen, Md., native Jones emerged from sister Brionna’s shadow to place in the top 20 all-time in rebounds, blocked shots and finished just behind her second-place sister as the third most accurate shooter ever for the Terps with a .594 field goal percentage.
The three seniors were ringleaders, particularly in Maryland’s move to an improved, stickier man-to-man defense, one that likely gave the Terrapins one of their best chances to advance deep into the NCAA Tournament. Maryland had advanced past the second round just once in the last four years and hadn’t reached the Final Four since back-to-back visits in 2013-2015. The Terps missed out again this year during a season in which they seemed primed for a strong showing.
Now we’ll never know, but this team certainly passed the eye test as one of Frese’s finest squads, unselfish and committed to doing what it took to get back to the top of the Big Ten.
Update: Shakira Austin, a 6-foot-5 center and second-team All-Big Ten selection, was listed as a returner in this story’s original publication, but reports surfaced March 20 that she plans on transferring.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Maryland Athletics