As guard Kaila Charles surveyed her teammates prior to Maryland women’s basketball’s 90-63 exhibition victory over Kutztown on Oct. 28, the junior noticed the wide range of experience and youth.
At center court, Charles was joined by fellow upperclassmen forwards Brianna Fraser and Stephanie Jones, as well as guard Channise Lewis, a returning starter. Those proven commodities were balanced by first-year guard Taylor Mikesell filling out the starting five. Highly touted freshman forward Shakira Austin was the first player off the bench.
No. 9 Maryland struggled early to adjust to the new lineup combinations, turning the ball over four times in the first five minutes. But by the Terps’ second exhibition game against Clarion — when Austin and Mikesell led the way with 29 and 24 points respectively — the newcomers appeared to be over any first-game jitters, and the team cruised to a 127-41 win.
That adjustment is just in time for Maryland’s season opener against Coppin State on Friday.
“The vets have been helping the freshman understand everything,” Fraser said. “And they’ve been learning and retaining everything, so it hasn’t been a challenge up to this point.”
With three quarters gone against Kutztown, the Terps held an 18-point advantage. The lead was decisive, but against a Division II side whose tallest player stood at just 6 feet, coach Brenda Frese didn’t seem pleased with the team’s communication.
Since that third quarter, where they outscored the Bears 23-22, the Terps have appeared to find a newfound chemistry. At halftime of their beatdown of Clarion, they had a 60-15 advantage.
After struggling defensively at times during its opening exhibition contest, Maryland has improved its communication on the court. That’s the area Frese feels has progressed most since the beginning of the summer.
Although Mikesell and Austin led the way scoring in the Terps’ final tuneup before the regular season begins, Fraser, Charles and Jones each managed to also score in double figures. Guard Blair Watson, who is still easing into the action after suffering a torn right ACL in January, added 10 points as well.
“Obviously, our new players are really talented, so they’ve acclimated very quickly,” Frese said. “Our vets — our juniors and seniors — have been tremendous, so it’s been a really smooth transition.”
Of the returning contributors, Charles may benefit the most from the talented freshman class. With the 6-foot-5 Austin down low as a true post player, Charles won’t have to operate in the paint as much, allowing her to get minutes at her more natural position outside.
A unanimous preseason All-Big Ten First Team selection, Charles led the Terps in points (17.9) and rebounds (8.1) last year, but as the squad’s most consistent scoring threat, she only averaged 2.1 assists per game and had an assist to turnover ratio of just .74.
With the addition of Mikesell and transfer Sara Vujacic — who combined to shoot a lethal 14-for-24 from beyond the arc in Maryland’s two exhibition contests — Charles should have much more space to operate in the lane and dish out assists to the wings.
For the preseason Big Ten favorites to compete on a national level in 2018-19, they must use their excess of weapons effectively. The team’s first contest of the season against Coppin State will be an early barometer.
“I’m glad that we’re learning how to play with each other and learning that any given night anyone can have a good game,” said Charles. “We have so many weapons we have to put everyone to use to be successful.”