Ashley Owusu is easily one of the best basketball players in the country, and certainly one of the most feared competitors in the Big Ten. Only a sophomore, she was named a unanimous first-team All-Big Ten selection March 8.
Put a basketball in her hands, and the 6-foot Maryland guard and her skills speak volumes. Put a microphone in front of her and things get a little quieter. Her biggest challenge, other than the ones all players faced with the pandemic this season, was becoming a more vocal leader on a team that graduated five seniors and lost two more veteran starters to transfer.
“As sophomores, we all knew we had to step up,” she said in a soft, sweet voice that belies the basketball killer she is on the hardwood. “We brought in a whole new team and it was just taking on that leadership role and coming more out of my shell by speaking more and becoming more vocal on and off the court in games and in practice.”
Never one to back down from a challenge — “I hate to lose,” she said — Owusu has stepped up and spoken up. This Terrapin did come out of her shell.
She’s the spark plug that fires the engine of the nation’s highest scoring team at 91.3 points per game. And losing? Well, try on a 21-2 overall record, No. 7 national ranking and 17-1 mark in the Big Ten, where five other teams are ranked and another is receiving votes. Top-seed Maryland tips off postseason play March 11 at the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis at 11 a.m., against the winner of the previous day’s 8-9 game between Nebraska and Minnesota.
“We understand it’s a new season, the slate is wiped clean and everybody is 0-0,” said Maryland’s Brenda Frese, who was named Big Ten Coach of the Year March 8. “You understand that if you win you march on. If you lose you go home.”
Owusu keeps marching on. She was named one of three unanimous first-team All-Big Ten picks along with Michigan’s Naz Hillmon and Iowa’s Caitlin Clark. Hillmon was the conference’s second leading scorer (25.1 points), top rebounder (11.3) and Player of the Year. Clark was the league’s leading scorer (27.4 points), assists leader (6.9) and Freshman of the Year. Fellow Maryland sophomore Diamond Miller (17.5 points, .502 field goal percentage, 6.2 rebounds, 1.4 steals, 0.8 blocks) was on the 11-player (there was a tie and there are 14 teams in the Big Ten) first team, as well.
But a compelling case still remains for Owusu as the conference’s top player. She was fourth in scoring (18.7 points), second in assists (5.8), eighth in field goal percentage (.493) and 10th in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.2). She was the undisputed leader of a Maryland team that steamrolled the rest of the Big Ten, much the same way Owusu does opponents on her drives to the basket.
She had 34 points and eight rebounds at Penn State; 20 points against Indiana; 19 against Purdue; 33 points and nine assists in the Terps’ only conference loss (88-86) at Ohio State; 20 against Michigan State; 25 points, seven rebounds and seven assists against Nebraska, and 24 points, eight assists and six rebounds against Minnesota. Maryland’s average margin of victory in Big Ten play was 20.8 points per game.
Owusu, who may have more NBA than WNBA in her game, makes the game looks so easy most of the time it has to be frustrating for opponents. In one memorable sequence a week ago, she was called for a dubious offensive foul on her way to a fast-break basket, so just seconds later in an identic situation, she pulled up and drained a short jumper.
But the truth is that this season has not been easy. From the loss of so many players in the offseason to the early-season broken foot for star freshman and Baltimore native Angel Reese and the loss of senior guard Channise Lewis to a knee injury just nine games in, the Terrapins have adjusted on the fly all season.
Both Frese and Owusu, ahem, speaking for her teammates, hinted at the uncertainty that has come with a 2020-21 season fraught with peril most of us don’t think about as we watch games on television.
“With everything going on with COVID, you don’t know when the last game of our season might be or if we would go on playing,” Owusu said. “So we just keep our heads high and come in every day ready to work because we don’t know what the future holds.”
Frese was emotional talking about those challenges, for her including her father currently battling prostate cancer.
“This [Coach of the Year award] does ring differently on so many levels when you talk about this team and this staff and these players being so resilient going through a pandemic. To be able to have that phone call from my mom and dad [after winning the award March 8], this definitely does sit a little differently.”
Owusu, a local product from Woodbridge, Va., talked about the team doing their part to lift up their coach.
“We come in and work as hard as we can and just being selfless, coming in and having fun with each other and spreading the love around,” she said. “It’s very tough seeing someone you look up to going through times like this, but we just want to be there for her on and off the court.”
Those outside the team can’t vouch for all the squad does for Frese off the court, but what they’re doing on it is readily apparent. Owusu and the cat-quick Miller are like “Thunder and Lightning,” igniting the offense and creating all sorts of problems for foes no matter how well prepared they may think they are to stop the terrific Terrapin twosome.
Grad transfer guard Katie Benzan, who earned second-team All-Big Ten honors, leads the league with 51.6 percent shooting from 3-point range and set a school record with nine threes in a win against Iowa. She is often the beneficiary of Owusu drives-and-dishes.
“I play with such a great point guard in Ashley who finds the open person every single time,” said Benzan after her often-Owusu-fueled 29-point effort against the Hawkeyes.
Even Frese was amazed at the ball-sharing that day in a 111-93 victory Feb. 23, and really, has been amazed all season.
“This is the No. 1 scoring offense in the country and you look to their unselfish assist-to-turnover ratio [second in the nation 1.60] that they have going on,” she said.
Mississippi State transfer Chloe Bibby and Tennessee transfer Mimi Collins also garnered Big Ten honors as honorable mention selections, an example of the Terrapins’ team-first mentality, according to their coach.
“All the awards this team received, I thought, was really a true reflection of this team playing the whole season for one-another,” Frese said. “It’s awesome to see the unselfishness and the way this team has been about being better every day. When that happens, all the awards and accolades take care of themselves.”
Owusu put in the work, albeit with her smooth floor game, that work was often mental. She focused on talking more, doing more on and off the court to facilitate the attitude that Frese engenders in the program: family.
“I just kept telling myself in my head what I needed to do,” Owusu said. “I wanted to come in every day and give my best and come out with success and the best outcome.”
So far, so good. Maryland has won four of six Big Ten tournaments since joining the league in 2014. The Terrapins are favored again and may be even more dangerous since Owusu is walking the walk and now even talking the talk.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Maryland Athletics