It was bad enough that Maryland women’s basketball crashed out of last year’s Sweet 16 against No. 10-seed Oregon despite a loaded roster that had lost just two games to that point.
Among the group of standouts was National Freshman of the Year Destiny Slocum, a point guard who brought childlike enthusiasm to the floor along with steady on-court production. With All-Americans Brionna Jones and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough set to graduate, Slocum was expected to become the team’s go-to player.
“She makes everybody else around her better,” coach Brenda Frese said following the 2017 Big Ten tournament. “She starts everything for us.”
But 10 days after Maryland’s season ended, the school announced Slocum would transfer from the program, leaving a void at a position historically filled with standout performers.
Less than three weeks later, incoming freshman point guard Channise Lewis announced she would join the Terps instead of Illinois. Even though Lewis wasn’t expected to replicate Slocum’s game, she’s capitalized on her opportunity in College Park as a pass-first ball handler.
Lewis averages 5.3 points and 4.8 assists per game. Her 153 assists this year are more than anyone else on the roster.
“When that door closed [with Slocum leaving], that meant it was meant for her to come to Maryland,” said the guard’s mother, Ivy Lewis. “Decision made, no regrets.”
Channise Lewis’ presence has helped stabilize Maryland en route to a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Terps face No. 12 seed Princeton on Friday and will look to her distribution skills as they attempt to kick-start a deep tournament run.
“To be coming into this season without a point guard obviously was extremely unexpected,” Frese said. “To be able to get Channise was kind of like finding a needle in a haystack.”
When Lewis and Slocum played together in the Check Me Out showcase in Seattle in 2014, her mother noted Slocum’s immense talent.
So about two years later, as Lewis considered her college options, Ivy Lewis told her daughter that Slocum was the more talented guard. In her eyes, that eliminated Maryland from the list of potential schools for Channise Lewis to attend.
Lewis fought back against her mother but ultimately chose Illinois.
“Because [Maryland] had the best point guard out there at that time, I was like, ‘Uh, I don’t think so,'” Ivy Lewis said. “She says, ‘But we play two different kinds of games,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, no, I don’t think so. She’s better than you.'”
Channise Lewis never played a game for the Fighting Illini. After coach Matt Bollant was fired in March 2017, she was granted a release and chose to move to the Terps following Slocum’s announced departure.
Normally, Frese said, when players are needed in a pinch, they are transfers who have to sit out a year. Getting Lewis, a recruit who wouldn’t need to miss time, so late in the process was huge for Frese and her staff, especially since most Big Ten teams and several programs across the country were after her.
Lewis’ brother Carlyle, who goes by “Slim,” told her she couldn’t pass up the chance to play alongside such a talented cast. Guard Ieshia Small, a fellow Miami native, pitched the opportunity to be teammates given their family ties. Lewis competed in AAU ball for Small’s mother.
Lewis sensed the Terps were a tight-knit unit, which drew her closer to the program.
“Because of what happened [at Illinois], she basically had to go where she felt that she could have done way better,” Ivy Lewis said. “We didn’t have to second-guess [Maryland] at all.”
Maryland has had a different starting point guard for four straight years. Each was effective.
Before Channise Lewis, Lexie Brown, Chloe Pavlech and Slocum guided their respective offenses to at least 30 wins.
Pavlech, who also started as freshman in 2012-13, said Frese teaches rookies to be fearless. But she added that a freshman in that role can go one of two ways: run with the challenge or back away.
Lewis has run with it.
Just four months after committing to Maryland, and nearly three months before the start of the regular season, Lewis and the Terps represented the U.S. at the World University Games in Taiwan.
Lewis didn’t know Maryland was headed to Taiwan until she got to the campus. It was her first time running the point at the collegiate level.
“In Taiwan, she was sort of thrown into the deep end a bit,” guard Kristen Confroy said. “She did really well.”
Frese equated Lewis’ experience in Taiwan to playing nonconference road trips, which the coach said sped up her progression and helped build chemistry with teammates.
Now, at the start of the NCAA tournament, Lewis has become the team’s main offensive facilitator, leading it to second place in the Big Ten despite the loss of its top three scorers from last season.
“I give her credit because she came out here and she put the team on her back,” Small said. “She’s just been helping us out drastically.”
Despite moving pieces and a lack of continuity at the point, it’s Lewis that has taken advantage of her turn to run Maryland’s perennial top-25 squad.
“That’s one of the most critical positions you could have on your team and to have so many changes [is difficult] … but our program speaks for itself — next man up,” Frese said. “She’s helped this team to 25 wins already in her freshman year. It speaks volumes of her consistency to be able to come in here and be ready to go.”
About six or seven years ago, Frese began holding weekly one-on-one meetings with her point guards to discuss what they see on the court and what they’re thinking.
In addition, Pavlech said, Frese protects her freshmen by always checking in on their well-being to avoid overwhelming newcomers.
“[Frese] really established a really great relationship with me and put in the time and the work and we got really close,” Pavlech said. “When you have the trust of your head coach in you, as a point guard, especially as a freshman, it makes all the difference in the world.
Frese, in her 16th season at Maryland, said taking care of younger players is a primary aspect of her coaching philosophy.
Pavlech said coaches arranged for her to room with the program’s all-time leading scorer, forward Alyssa Thomas, on road trips. She learned from Thomas’ skill set while gaining a mentor in the locker room.
This year, Lewis often rooms with Confroy, who called Lewis a sponge willing to gather pointers from anyone around her. Frese suggested the housing arrangement, showing how much she wants players like Lewis to have a sense of security.
“I’ve definitely felt that from Brenda,” Lewis said. “If I have a question or any clarification of what I need to do, she’ll be there for me and help me throughout the process. The protecting me is really there.”
Lewis still hasn’t had her “aha” moment.
While the guard produced a number of memorable plays during her 32 games this season, it still hasn’t sunk in that she’s competing for one of the nation’s premier programs.
The realization didn’t come on Nov. 13 when she drove to the hoop and scored a layup to bring the Terps within one score of then-No. 4 South Carolina with 38 seconds left. It remained evasive when she notched 10 assists on Jan 22 in Maryland’s win over then-No. 12 Ohio State. Even when she hit game-changing 3-pointers in both the team’s Big Ten tournament victories, nothing clicked.
“It’ll probably occur to me one of these days,” Lewis said.
Lewis has started all but two games. The tough matchups she’s dealt with throughout the campaign haven’t fazed her given her experience at Miami Country Day School.
She won two high school national titles, including one at Madison Square Garden, and four state championships.
Lewis brought the even-keeled demeanor she showed during those contests to Maryland.
Every day, Lewis asks Frese, ‘How’s your day?’ Even if the coach is in a rush, her freshman point guard checks in.
Frese said that simple gesture illustrates poise beyond Lewis’ years, stemming from how she was raised.
“I haven’t had a freshman like that in a long time, of that kind of depth and perspective,” Frese said. “She’s steady, she’s cool, she’s consistent, she’s calm and just what we needed.”
As Lewis’ play continues to improve, she figures to serve a crucial role in Maryland’s postseason hopes. She even lifted the lid enough to say she’s excited for the opportunity.
Mostly, though, she’s maintained a quiet but confident temperament. Confroy said Lewis is rarely bothered by anything on the court.
As the latest Terps floor general to enter the NCAA tournament with high expectations, the pressure of March is unlikely to get to her.
“The stage does not scare her,” Ivy Lewis said. “She’s excited but she’s not going to show you that excitement. All she wants to do is go out there and get the [win]. That’s all she knows.”