Early in her Maryland women’s basketball career, guard Kaila Charles would regularly beat senior All-American guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough in sprints. Coach Brenda Frese said the tight-knit roommates maintained a competitive relationship, constantly pushing each other in practice.
One day, Charles relaxed slightly, and Walker-Kimbrough blew by her, beating the then-freshman by a large margin. Charles was stunned.
“Ever since then, I was, like, always looking to my left and right, making sure she wasn’t beating me,” Charles said. “I realized, she’s not going to let me ever take a break, so I always had that mentality.”
While those intense training sessions helped Charles quickly establish herself as a freshman starter, she’s had to carry a greater load this year after Walker-Kimbrough, center Brionna Jones and guard Destiny Slocum left the program.
Rather than shrinking from that responsibility, Charles used the competitiveness she flashed as a rookie to become the player Frese says makes Maryland go. Behind her 18.1 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, as well as her stellar defense, the No. 17 Terps have remained a national force.
“It started from the minute she stepped on campus,” Frese said. “I’ve never seen a freshman come in and take a senior, beating her in sprints and one-on-one matchups. … A lot of times, freshmen are going to come in and shy away from your senior All-American, but she’s just ultra competitive.”
With the departures of Walker-Kimbrough, Jones and Slocum — two All-Americans and the National Freshman of the Year — Maryland lost its three leading scorers from last season.
Charles made an impact as a rookie, averaging 9.7 points and 5.6 rebounds per game, but she was often overshadowed by her more productive teammates.
This year, though, the biggest moments have fallen on her shoulders.
She’s responded with an All-Big Ten campaign that’s placed her as one of just three sophomores contending for the Citizen Naismith Women’s College Player of the Year Trophy. Her leadership has taken a similar step forward.
“She’s a big part of our voice of our team and extremely competitive, like all our great players have been in this program,” Frese said. “Just seeing that leadership part — we’re asking her to do things as a sophomore, and she just wants to shoulder that responsibility.”
Charles showed her ability to take control of the team in the second game of the season.
The Terps trailed then-No. 4 South Carolina by 15 at halftime. Charles entered the locker room with just four points. But after the break, she scored 27 points, nearly orchestrating a comeback as the Terps got to within three points of the Gamecocks before ultimately losing, 94-86.
South Carolina’s three-time SEC Player of the Year and two-time first-team All-American forward A’Ja Wilson said Charles was difficult to stop. Frese saw flashes of legendary former Terps forward Alyssa Thomas in the breakout performance.
Thomas, who was the fourth overall pick in the 2014 WNBA draft, is Maryland’s all-time leading scorer.
“I definitely think [Charles can play at that level], just with the way she plays each day,” forward Stephanie Jones said. “I was fortunate enough to be able to come here and watch Alyssa play here her senior year a lot, so I do think that she’s on her way to being that type of player.”
Charles called the comparison to Thomas, whom she dubs “one of the best players to ever put a Maryland uniform on,” a great compliment that boosted her early-season confidence.
Since that South Carolina game, she has continued to flourish, particularly when matched up with Maryland’s toughest opponents. Charles averaged 29 points and 10 rebounds against the four teams that were ranked when Maryland played them.
“The bigger the stage, the bigger she plays,” Frese said.
That production isn’t limited to her scoring.
Charles uses her durability and tenacious defense to aid Maryland even when she’s not knocking down shots.
She played all 40 minutes against No. 1 Connecticut, 34 minutes against then-No. 18 Iowa and 33 minutes in a victory over then-No. 12 Ohio State. Given the Terps’ lack of depth, her ability to remain on the floor without wearing down has been crucial.
“If they need me to play 40 minutes, I’m going to be there to play 40 minutes,” Charles said. “But, best believe in the timeouts, I’m drinking all the water and getting all the rest I can.”
As she racks up floor time, Charles has often guarded the opposition’s biggest offensive threats.
Ohio State guard Kelsey Mitchell averages 24.4 points per game, but Charles held her to 15. Michigan guard Katelynn Flaherty normally shoots about 46 percent percent from the field but shot just 28.5 percent from the floor with Charles guarding her on Feb. 22.
Charles often credits team defense when she keeps those types of players quiet. But after playing the Buckeyes, guard Kristen Confroy called her out on being too humble. Confroy said Charles wasn’t giving herself a fair shake, calling her an incredible defender who was going to give the rest of the conference fits on the defensive end.
Charles embraces the one-on-one battles that have garnered that level of praise.
“I love challenges, so I love to guard the best player on any team,” Charles said. “It’s going to make me better overall as a person and make me learn how to play defense. … When coach is like, ‘Yeah, you have No. 3,’ I’m just like, ‘OK.’ I’m ready for that challenge every day.”
Charles’ fearlessness when facing top-tier players has earned respect from veteran teammates. It’s also elevated the Terps’ play at both ends, contributing to the team’s 14th straight 20-win season.
“She’s just great, with her energy, her effort, everything about her,” redshirt senior guard Ieshia Small said. “She has a motor about her that just lifts everybody else up to keep playing and she has been stepping up drastically during games, doing things a lot of players can’t do just being a sophomore.”
“She just does a great job helping me out, and I’m the senior,” Small added.
Charles took on a host of responsibilities after graduations and transfers gutted Maryland’s squad. Fans who watched her in a complementary role last year might not have expected her to succeed as a go-to player.
But Charles didn’t back down, transforming from Maryland’s fourth option on offense to its leading scorer and rebounder. She also became a primary voice in the locker room.
The Terps have rallied behind the underclassman’s energy to earn the No. 2-seed in the Big Ten tournament.
“I don’t let being a sophomore be an excuse,” Charles said. “I’m up to challenges. Last year, this year, any year.”
When Charles was a freshman, she would turn her head back and forth during sprints, looking for a glimpse of Walker-Kimbrough darting beside her. It was yet another one-on-one battle she refused to concede.
There’s no one for Charles to monitor as she flies down the floor this year. Walker-Kimbrough now plays in the WNBA for the Washington Mystics.
But the pace hasn’t diminished, as Charles drives her teammates to keep up.
“I’ve never played around a player that pushes you to your max,” Small said. “She makes you want to get up there and run with her.”