A few weeks prior to the 2018-19 season, Maryland women’s basketball guard Taylor Mikesell confided in coach Brenda Frese as to why she was struggling so much transitioning to defense at the college level.
The five-star freshman from Massillon, Ohio, had sat back in zone defense during her entire career at Jackson High School. She had never played man-to-man before coming to College Park, but Mikesell wasn’t the Terps’ only player not defending well.
“That’s going to be a work in progress for us throughout this season,” Frese said during Maryland’s Media Day.
But after an 85-61 triumph over then-No. 10 South Carolina on Sunday, in which the Terps held the Gamecocks to 35.6 percent shooting from the field and a derisory 1-for-21 clip from three-point range, their defense no longer appears to be a weak spot. Throughout its first four games, Maryland’s preseason liability has developed into a strong suit.
“We had got their punch, and just to settle in, to play our style now that we had seen how aggressive they were going to be off the bounce,” Frese said. “We got them to settle for a lot of tough shots.”
South Carolina opened the game on an 18-6 run, making 8-of-11 shots during a turnover-laden start from Maryland. Only one of the eight baskets — a wide-open jumper buried by forward Herbert Harrigan — wasn’t laid in at the rim.
That’s when the Terps’ defense stepped up.
Maryland immediately countered with a 26-1 stretch, holding the Gamecocks without a field goal for over eight minutes. South Carolina went 0-for-13 during the run, which ended when forward Alexis Jennings finally nailed a jump shot with 5:48 left until halftime.
After the early South Carolina run, Maryland held the home team to 29 percent shooting the rest of the game.
Going into the top-10 bout with the Gamecocks, the Terps had struggled on the offensive side of the ball, relying heavily on defense to carry them through contests. They shot just 38.6 percent in a season-opening 93-36 win over Coppin State, and in a 69-30 smothering of George Washington, they shot just 2-of-16 from 3-point range. In an 82-71 victory over Dayton, Maryland had 24 turnovers.
So despite Frese’s apprehension toward her team’s defense prior to the season, that side of the ball has been the team’s strength so far.
The Terps held the Eagles to just 25 percent from the field and 3-for-15 from three. Their defense held the Colonials to 17.5 percent shooting. And, in Maryland’s worst defensive outing so far, the Flyers still only managed to make 39.4 percent of their shots against the Terps.
“[We’re] starting to hit more shots and knock things down,” guard Blair Watson said prior to facing South Carolina. “We need to get locked in on defense and kinda take defense and transitioning into offense.”
While Maryland still has room to improve on the offensive end, the defense has been an unexpected bright spot. The lockdown defense secured a game in which the offense turned the ball over 20 times.
While Frese admitted at Media Day that her team’s defense needed the most work, she added one caveat: Her players would improve on defense as the season wore on. And given their drastic improvement on that end of the floor already, the offense might not be far behind.
“I mean obviously we’re not a finished product, nowhere near,” Frese said. “When you talk about the turnovers that we had tonight with the pressure of South Carolina’s defense, but [we’re trying] just to grow and get better as a team.”