In high school, Maryland women’s basketball freshmen Gia Cooke, Bri McDaniel, Mila Reynolds and Ava Sciolla combined for more than 4,500 points. But through its first 28 games with the Terps, the quartet that formed Coach Brenda Frese’s top-10 recruiting class has scored just 157.
There was hope that the incoming freshmen class, which boasted a trio of top-60 recruits in Cooke, McDaniel and Reynolds, would help offset high-profile departures such as the transfers of Ashley Owusu and Angel Reese and the graduations of Katie Benzan and Chloe Bibby.
Each freshman debuted in No. 7 Maryland’s season opener against George Mason. Three got time in the next game against No. 1 South Carolina, and it seemed as if multiple first-year players would be part of Frese’s rotation.
However, their playing time dropped off as the season progressed. To date, the four freshmen have shared the court for just over seventeen minutes, per research done by University of Maryland data professor Derek Willis, with the most in one game at just over four minutes.
Frese rarely relies on freshmen, but this year’s class stands out because of how little they’ve played.
The reasons are wide-ranging — stemming from the difficult transition to college basketball to the number of experienced players ahead of them in the rotation. But the freshmen have plowed through the difficult season and all are hopeful they find expanded roles moving forward, either this year or beyond.
“I told the freshmen at Christmas time that their games were their practices,” Frese said. “And that’s how they were going to build that trust to be able to get into games this season.”
Adjusting to college life
The collegiate atmosphere can prove difficult for young players, especially four and five-star recruits who enter college often as the top player at their high schools.
The challenge is two-fold: freshmen must adjust to a rigorous academic setting and learn the responsibilities associated with living independently. That means deciding what time to go to sleep, how to organize one’s day and when to eat.
Then there’s basketball. The jump from high school to college comes with faster and stronger players along with a faster pace of play.
And with the pandemic extending eligibility, some 18-year-olds share the court with players six years their senior. Frese also constructed one of the nation’s toughest non-conference schedules — Maryland has played South Carolina, Baylor, Notre Dame and UConn.
“The biggest transition is the physical part,” said Reynolds, a 2,099-point scorer in high school. “The upperclassmen are a lot faster, stronger, they can move quicker, just kind of trying to adjust to that speed.”
The ubiquity of the transfer portal allows teams to quickly rebuild rosters. But bringing in fourth and fifth-years also siphons minutes away from younger players.
Four of the players Frese brought in via the portal — Brinae Alexander, Lavender Briggs, Abby Meyers and Elisa Pinzan — have reached 1,000 career points this season. Each one also brought ample experience at the collegiate level.
Add them to two seniors, leading scorer Diamond Miller and defensive standout Faith Masonius, and reigning Big Ten Sixth Player of the Year Shyanne Sellers, and the Terps’ lineup has precious few minutes to spare.
“There’s a lot of experience in front of them and in a lot of different positions,” Frese said. “So just continuing to learn from scouting and film and practices and build on that trust on the court within their practices.”
The coach has several indicators she examines to see if a freshman is ready to crack the rotation. First, can a player successfully execute the responsibilities of their position? For example, can a point guard run the offense? Is there an implicit understanding of where people need to be and how to operate the desired offensive sets?
Second, can a player consistently execute and follow the scouting report — the cerebral nuance of the game? Does a freshman know when to pick up Iowa sharpshooter Caitlin Clark? The answer: the minute she crosses half court — knowing that answer is paramount to catching the Maryland coach’s attention.
Frese uses practices as a barometer for player development.
“You really can tell if a player kind of understands, knows their role,” Frese said. “There’s a lot thrown at anyone that’s new, and I think that’s why you see with your transfers … learning that but probably at a quicker rate because they’ve been through it before.”
In her two decades in charge at Maryland, Frese has displayed a willingness to rely on first-years for significant minutes; below are two charts showing the average minutes and games started for every freshman class since 2002-2003, her first season in College Park.
Using averages here helps account for the difference in games played.
Frese usually does not put freshmen in high-leverage situations, but the extremely low numbers for this year’s class do make them an outlier.
The coach talks with her players on and off the court about how to get minutes and reassures them that they have her belief.
“Coach [Frese] has always been hard on me,” Reynolds said. “But it's never a point where it’s like she's been rude about. She just wants to push me to be the best version of myself.”
“Stay the course,”
That’s the advice Masonius gave to the four freshmen.
“I used to say this my freshman year, ‘it's not how many minutes you get, it's what you do with the minutes you have … and finding something that makes you have to be on the court,’” she said.
“I think it's a learning experience that every collegiate basketball player has to go through,” Meyers said. “Whatever year it is, trying to figure out a different role that they didn't foresee that they didn't expect. It can definitely be a humbling role for them.”
Even McDaniel, the freshman with the most minutes played, has had to rebound and use advice from her teammates to stay afloat. This season has brought 18 games of 10 or fewer minutes, even after she scored 13 points in 19 minutes against George Mason in her first game.
One of her lowest moments came after Maryland suffered a shocking late November defeat to DePaul, 67-76. She missed all six of her shots, picked up a personal foul and played just 14 minutes in the loss.
After the match, McDaniel spent time with Stephanie Davis, Alexander’s mother.
Davis told McDaniel not to stress as much and play her game while also highlighting some of McDaniel’s positive moments. Alexander’s sister, Brianne, who played basketball at Division I Austin Peay State, has offered McDaniel wisdom and encouragement throughout the season.
Alexander has been a relatable figure for the freshmen; the senior guard transferred from Vanderbilt after four years in Nashville. The Tennessee native had never left her home state and arrived in College Park as unfamiliar with her surroundings as the first-years.
“My biggest advice I told them is just give themselves grace and be patient with themselves,” Alexander said. “Everyone goes through the freshman transition, and it's really tough — some people will contemplate even playing the sport anymore after their freshman year.”
Despite that, amid a season that has mostly seen them relegated to bench roles, the class of 2026 has stayed true to themselves. Cooke and Reynolds continue to make whimsical dance videos, Sciolla remains all smiles at practice and McDaniel still plays each game like it's her last.
“What I've loved about the freshman class is they're able to be that energy and still be their authentic self around us and also on the court,” Meyers said. “And I think that's really important.”
The Terps hope those qualities help the freshmen weather their difficult first season and develop into regular contributors.