It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that Maryland had zoomed back into the top 10 of women’s basketball this season. And while that doesn’t represent a transfer of power in the upper echelons of the game, it does represent transfers taking the Terrapins back to the top.
The eighth-ranked Terrapins are 17-2, winners of six consecutive games and eying a 10th Big Ten Conference title (five regular season and four tournament), and they’re doing it with seven players who weren’t on the team last year when the confetti rained down on their 2020 Big Ten tournament championship win in Indianapolis.
Brenda Frese seemingly had an “inbox” and “outbox” on her desk for scholarship papers this past spring, forcing a scramble by her and her staff to fill out a roster after All-Big Ten selections Shakira Austin and Taylor Mikesell and reserve Olivia Owens entered the transfer portal.
“The plan changed when we had the transfers,” said the 19th-year Terrapin coach, who recently picked up her 500th win at Maryland. “We knew that five were going to graduate, but to have three transfer on you after the season we had, to be a No. 1 seed, was quite a surprise. We didn’t feel sorry for ourselves very long, though.”
That’s when the “Zooming” heated up with some video presentations to other top players in the transfer portal — Katie Benzan and Chloe Bibby — who would join Mimi Collins to immediately replenish the roster. Collins, a 2019 transfer from Tennessee, had been with the Terrapins for a year practicing. But she was unable to play due what now seem to be archaic NCAA rules that have lightened since the coronavirus changed the game so dramatically.
In early April, Maryland signed Benzan and Bibby, two players looking for dramatic change. The 5-foot-6 mighty-mite Benzan was an immediately eligible grad transfer from Harvard, where she was a three-time first-team All-Ivy League pick but sat out the 2019-20 season looking for the right place to take her jumper and veteran savvy.
Bibby, a 6-foot-1 native of Warracknabeal, Australia, had been a preseason All-SEC pick at Mississippi State in 2019-20 after averaging 11.9 points and shooting 45 percent from 3-point range the previous season. She tore her ACL after 18 games, though, and then when coach Vic Schafer left for Texas, Bibby was ready to go walk-about, too. She had been a key player for the Bulldogs on their 2018 team that reached the national championship game and the 2019 team that won the SEC title and played in the Elite Eight.
Bibby never even visited Maryland before transferring to College Park, terming it an “adventure.” She and Benzan didn’t get on the court with their new teammates until school opened in the fall, but they quickly proved their mettle with coaches and teammates whom they only knew from those offseason Zoom calls.
“That’s all you had — the Zoom calls, FaceTime calls, text messages. We were really committed to that as a staff,” Frese said. “You think about Chloe Bibby and the 16-hour time change to Australia. We had to get creative with what time we were doing the Zoom calls each week with what the girls were juggling. Ironically, we were able to build a lot through the Zoom calls we were able to have.”
Benzan, Harvard degree in hand, goes a step further.
“The blessing of all the Zoom calls was we got to know each other as people first, and all our little quirks,” Benzan said. “So when it comes to basketball, we’ve already established respect and love for each other so that we can speak frankly.”
Frankly, the last additions of Benzan and Bibby and their amazingly smooth transition right into the fabric of the team, has been a real key. Maryland moved to No. 8 in the Associated Press poll released Feb. 22, its second-highest rating this season, and the Terrapins lead the nation in scoring at 93.4 points per game.
Benzan and Bibby have fit in seamlessly on the court, starting every game, and now Collins is a starter, too, since the foot injury to Baltimore’s Angel Reese in December. Another transfer — Cal’s Alaysia Styles — joined up in January in timely fashion when Frese’s rotation was down to seven players with the injuries to Reese and the team’s lone senior, point guard Channise Lewis. (Reese, by the way returned in Maryland’s impressive 111-93 win over Iowa Feb. 23, playing 12 minutes in her first game action since Dec. 3.)
Bibby is an Aussie as effective on the perimeter as she is down under the basket. Her ability to stretch a defense with her 34.2 percent shooting from 3-point range has opened the floor for star guards Ashley Owusu and Diamond Miller to attack the hoop.
Benzan has often been a beneficiary of that penetration to the paint. She’s only shooting 53.8 percent from 3-point range to lead the nation after a 9-for-10 effort behind the arc against Iowa, a school record of 3-point makes in a game. She is second in the country in 3-point makes with 77.
Collins is shooting 48 percent from the floor, is second on the team with 6.6 rebounds and leads the Terps in immovable screens. The 6-foot-3 sophomore is reminding everyone why she was a highly-regarded forward coming out of Waldorf and St. Paul VI High School.
The 6-foot-3, long-armed Styles is averaging 16.6 minutes and becoming more and more valuable off the bench. She’s a terror in the press, helps on the boards and is shooting 50 percent from the field.
“I thought it would be tough at first — a new environment, new conference, new side of the country, new everything — and it was totally new for about week and a half, but now I feel like I’ve been here for a long time,” Styles said. “Everybody has been great to me and I’m getting to know them really well and they’re getting to know me.”
Styles said the common denominator is hard work and the common goal of seeing how far this team can go. Speaking of hard work, lightly-used Russian guard Taisiya Kozlova, a 6-foot-1 freshman also added this summer, seems to have a high ceiling to her game but too many other guards to try to bypass for more time right now. Frese loves her work ethic, though, and her 50 percent shooting behind the arc — and what it portends for the future.
“It’s amazing when you think about losing all five starters and this team coming together, and really coming together by Zoom first,” Frese said of the unusual 2020-21 season. “Players like Chloe and Tai that never even visited campus and came sight unseen. I think what separates them is they’re really unselfish. You don’t ever feel that selfishness that someone has to get their points, although they all want to score and they’re really good scorers.”
All five starters average double figures (Reese was at 13.3 points per game early this season), and versatile Faith Masonius comes off the bench, chipping in 6.2 points and 5.4 rebounds. These Terrapins fill up the basket easily, but the games turn more grinding come postseason and defense will be more of a key, something Bibby, in particular, preaches. Zoom or otherwise, she hasn’t been afraid to call anyone out.
“We build trust with each other and through those Zoom calls, we got to know each other,” Bibby said. “When we finally got on campus it was just that chemistry that we built, and I think it’s the respect factor. When we get on the court, we all respect each other. If I have something to say to anyone, they’re going to respect what I say because I play basketball just as well as they do. If someone pulls me off and says I’m not doing something right, then I will adjust. I think that’s what’s making us so successful.”
Now key conference calls await, starting with a trip to Purdue Feb. 25 and then a key tilt at Northwestern Feb. 28. The regular season concludes March 5 at home against Penn State.
The Terps are coming down the stretch with a one-game lead over Ohio State, which handed Maryland its only Big Ten loss, 88-86 in late January. Those two won’t meet again unless it’s in the postseason.
The Big Ten tournament tips off in Indianapolis March 9-13. This disjointed season, the NCAA Tournament will be played entirely in San Antonio, Texas, on two courts in the Alamodome, beginning March 21 and wrapping with the national championship game April 4.
Very few teams in the field will want to see the Terrapins come calling.
All statistics are entering Maryland’s game at Purdue Feb. 25.
Photo Credits: Courtesy of Maryland Athletics