After Maryland women’s basketball scored just 21 points in the second half of its blowout loss to UConn on Nov. 16, coach Brenda Frese stepped up to the postgame podium and delivered a pointed message.
“We’ve gotta find some additional players to be able to help us score the basketball,” Frese said.
There seemed to be a conspicuous answer already on Maryland’s roster. Freshman Riley Nelson averaged nearly 17 points a game in her senior year of high school, earned McDonald’s All-American honors and was a five-star recruit.
But when the question was raised about why Nelson wasn’t playing more, people within the program preached the importance of patience. Despite coaches singing the praises of the incoming freshman in the preseason, the Maryland native only averaged about eight minutes per contest in the first four games of the season.
Nelson’s role grew and she shined as the Terps played three games in three days at the 2023 Cancun Challenge last week. Against then-No. 23 Washington State, Green Bay and Massachusetts, the talented guard played an average of nearly 26 minutes a game.
While some of Nelson’s increased minutes were likely due to Maryland playing three games in quick succession, she took advantage of the opportunity.
“We’ve got to be able to build our depth,” Frese said before the games. “If you’re going to go far and be able to play three games in three days in the Big Ten tournament, you have to be able to utilize your depth.”
Despite shooting 2-for-12 from the field and struggling in her first contest against the Cougars, Nelson played well in the final two games of the tournament. She scored nine and eight points against Green Bay and UMass, respectively, giving Maryland another bench option next to the emerging Bri McDaniel.
McDaniel had a similar experience to Nelson during her first year with the Terps, as the sophomore played limited minutes at the beginning of last season before eventually playing consistent time in Maryland’s rotation. Now, she can offer advice to freshmen, including Nelson.
“Just telling them to stay patient,” McDaniel said. “I just tell them to wait your turn, you got it.”
Nelson’s increased playing time changed Frese’s rotations. In a close game against Green Bay, the freshman played 33 minutes while graduate student Lavender Briggs only played 10. Briggs has struggled to find a consistent role so far, scoring a season-high 18 points against Washington State before failing to record a basket against Green Bay.
The freshman and senior are different types of players despite playing similar positions. Briggs is a stronger defender, ranks third on the team in rebounds and has played in 89 games since 2019. Meanwhile, Nelson is a freshman who has struggled on defense at points, but was one of the top shooting prospects in the country and is a smooth ball-handler who can provide a scoring punch.
Nelson hasn’t been afraid to assert herself in recent games either. She averaged more than nine shots per game during the Terps’ three games in Cancun.
For a Terps team that has struggled to score the ball at points this season, inserting younger players like Nelson and McDaniel might be the best solution. A larger role for the freshman might come with highs and lows, but her peaks could provide a much-needed offensive lift for Maryland.