Maryland women’s basketball is a three-peat favorite to defend its Big Ten title yet again, but with fresh faces and an unrecognizable roster compared with last season’s champions, it’s not going to be easy for head coach Brenda Frese.
The Terrapins’ 14-woman team consists of seven newcomers – six of them freshmen, including three McDonald’s All-American guards in Destiny Slocum, Kaila Charles and Blair Watson. The group is polished and plays with characteristics of veterans, but Frese admitted bumps along the way are inevitable.
“They’re fearless, they’re workers and they’re extremely competitive, and it’s a really, really special group,” said Frese, now in her 15th season with the Terps. “[Where] we do have to manage expectations that we have for them as the No. 1 recruiting class in the country is the fact that they are true freshmen, so you are going to have cycles of up and down and what it takes through a season.
“But I love their mentality.”
Despite having the largest number of true freshmen since the Terps’ 2010-11 season – back when they were still in the ACC – Frese knows how to blend newcomers with seasoned players. They’re not treated like freshmen and certainly aren’t coddled. And judging by the level of play they began practicing at, they didn’t need to be.
In fact, they raised the bar for an incoming class at an already successful program, giving seniors Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Brionna Jones a healthy reality check.
They finish first in sprints on the track and the court and already are meshing well in Maryland’s high-caliber defense, Frese said.
Recently cleared for a shoulder injury that kept her sidelined in the summer and part of fall, Watson will be key factor on the perimeter, shooting “the three like they’re layups,” Frese said. She also described Slocum as an energetic crowd pleaser and “a breath of fresh air,” hailing from Meridian, Idaho.
“I’ve never seen as a group collectively – sometimes you’ll have one or two – pushing each other, and they’re pushing me and Bri,” Walker-Kimbrough said. “I don’t think many seniors can say that, across the country, their freshmen push them every day.”
Still in her backyard
Kaila Charles could have played anywhere. Growing up in Glenn Dale, Maryland, the 6-foot-1 freshman often watched Maryland hoops, but it wasn’t until she began closely following the Terps as a teenager that she realized she could play college ball less than eight miles from home.
Witnessing the success of Maryland’s program while she was in high school – as it racked up two Big Ten titles and two NCAA Final Four appearances – “sparked a dream” of wanting to play for Frese.
“I think of it as a huge blessing that I was able to get this opportunity to play at this next level and the fact that I had a school right in my backyard that is well-known and nationally ranked and was looking to give me a scholarship,” said Charles, who was named Washington Post All-Met Player of the Year in 2016. “I was glad and happy that I can play [in] my hometown.”
Frese is, of course, thrilled to have Charles, as well, describing the Riverdale Baptist graduate as someone who wants to win at everything – “sprints, defense, Checkers, you name it.”
She also said Charles is ahead of most players conceptually at this point in the preseason, particularly on defense.
“I love that Kaila’s really a dominant, alpha personality,” Frese said. “She’s extremely confident and really determined, so she’s come in and has been so competitive out of the gate. She doesn’t back down to anyone, she’s been our best defender on the court early, she’s very versatile – can play inside and out – so she’s a high-motor kid that wins.”
‘Keeping up with the Joneses’
Among the six incoming freshmen is a familiar face: Stephanie Jones, the younger sister of Brionna. The pair look so similar that Walker-Kimbrough said people often can’t tell who is who, and Stephanie joked the team welcomed her as “just like another Bri.”
Though the sisters – from Havre De Grace in northeastern Maryland – played together as a senior and freshman in high school, Brionna noted the rarity of playing together in college has made her more appreciative of seeing Stephanie every day.
“Bringing in [Brionna’s] sister, you know you’re getting a high-character, high-moral, high-work ethic consistency every single day,” Frese said. “So for us, you can’t get enough of that in your program. I joke to the Joneses that I want them to have about three more kids to be able to send to our program because their daughters have just been so exceptional.”
The Terrapins open their exhibition season Nov. 2 against Bluefield State and the regular season Nov. 13 against UMass Lowell. Both games are at the XFINITY Center in College Park.
© 2017 WUSA-TV