It didn’t take long for Maryland women’s basketball coach Brenda Frese to realize guard Kaila Charles was going to be a difference-maker.
During one of the team’s first practices this preseason, the freshman wanted to defend guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, a two-time All-Big Ten selection who was named an All-American by multiple outlets as a junior last season.
“You don’t see a lot of freshmen walk in and want to take that matchup and show they can defend,” Frese said.
It may have caught the 15th-year head coach off guard at the time, but now, more than halfway through the conference schedule, Charles has backed up her early confidence. Her defensive prowess has helped her become one of the most important players on the No. 3 Terps. Frese hopes Charles will continue to defend at a high level when Maryland (21-1, 9-0 Big Ten) visits Purdue (14-8, 5-3) on Thursday night.
“Why she’s in the starting lineup and is playing so many minutes is because she’s [defending] at a level nobody else can,” Frese said. “She’s by far the most versatile and probably the best defender we’ve had in my time come through Maryland.”
Charles embraces her role as defensive stopper. She’s always put an emphasis on the defensive end and enjoys when coaches assign her to opponents’ most dangerous scorers.
“It’s the highest compliment from a coaching staff’s end,” Frese said. “We feel really confident that we can put her on the best player at any time.”
Against Purdue, Charles will match up against Boilermakers guard Ashley Morrissette, who’s averaging 17.5 points in conference games this year, but she’ll also roam to other players.
The 6-foot-1 freshman is listed at guard but is capable in the interior and can defend all five positions, an ability that comes from practice and experience, Charles said.
“She is our motor on defense,” Walker-Kimbrough said. “I don’t think she realizes how much she actually means to us.”
Charles’ contributions don’t always show up in the box score. She has 25 steals, more than one per game but only sixth-most on the team, and 11 blocks this season. The team said it feels her absence when she leaves the court.
“That’s why I get so frustrated when she fouls someone,” Walker-Kimbrough said. “I’m like Kaila, we need you on the floor. I’m not even just saying that, we actually do need you on the floor. I don’t need these ticky-tack foul calls.”
In Maryland’s 100-81 win over Iowa on Sunday, Charles picked up a pair of fouls in the second quarter that led Frese to pull her off the court. Charles finished with three fouls and 21 minutes. The Glenn Dale native is second on the team with 47 fouls, and Frese said cutting them down is “a work in progress.”
Charles is also still developing her offensive game, where she averages 9.7 points and shoots 64 percent from the free throw line. Frese expects her to take more of a scoring role next season, when Walker-Kimbrough and center Brionna Jones — the team’s leading scorers — graduate.
Plus, in the team’s eyes, she’s already contributing on offense.
“I definitely think defense is more important than offense, because [defense] leads to your offense,” Charles said. “I like to work on both of my games, but definitely the defensive aspect. If you can play both sides of the floor, you’re more helpful to the team.”
Frese called Charles’ combination of length, speed and power unique, and said it’s a large reason she’s so tough to beat on defense. What really separates her, Frese said, is her competitiveness and mentality, in practice and in games.
That’s what stuck out to Frese at that practice months ago, and it’s what makes Charles such a feared defender.
“My determination is to try my best for them not to score and to contain them in that possession,” Charles said. “I’m just glad I can make a huge impact right now.”