Long ago, Essence Townsend learned to speak from the heart, so her pregame talks always come from there. She never writes anything down and sometimes even plans ahead, to future opponents. “Forget the name on the jersey,” the redshirt senior will say. “Let’s just play Maryland basketball.”
As the fourth-seeded Terrapins surged into this weekend’s Final Four, upsetting top-seeded Tennessee and No. 3 Louisville along the way, they have been powered by a threatening mix of young talent and veterans. All-American Alyssa Thomas, sharpshooter Katie Rutan and inside force Alicia DeVaughn are all seniors. Starting point guard Lexie Brown and sixth woman Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, by contrast, are freshmen. But another two seniors, the tallest and shortest players on the team, who exist outside the rotation yet remain linked to Maryland’s success, are barely noticed in the public’s eye but beloved among their teammates.
Townsend keeps everyone levelheaded throughout games, offering speeches in the locker room, at halftime and during timeouts. Guard Sequoia Austin, in her words, is “the energy captain,” with her three-point goggles and enthusiastic dancing. Both Townsend and Austin have played exactly 74 minutes apiece this season. It’s likely the Terps could not do without them.
“They’re great,” Thomas said. “They support us no matter what. They get after us. As you see, the bench has a great time. Those two right there, they started it all.”
Austin, perhaps best known for rocking out on the drums while the men’s team upset Duke in February 2013, found it tough to lead in earlier seasons from her perch at the end of the bench, wondering whether her teammates would listen to someone who usually logs minutes only in blowouts. But being a senior changed her role. It made her feel bigger, like the younger players needed her, no more so than when Maryland’s season was spiraling down the drain.
The Terps lasted all of 40 minutes in the ACC tournament, losing to North Carolina in Greensboro, N.C., on March 7. The players had two weeks to stew on the loss before the NCAA tournament came around. They knew they were getting in. There was no drama there. The question became, could they turn it around?
“That period between the two tournaments, we had some really tough practices and I think our seniors are a big part of what kept everyone’s heads on straight and understand that this is going to pay off,” Austin said. “Speaking before and after practice, taking the freshmen and sophomores to the side, letting them know that we can get through this as a team.”
Perhaps not even in Austin’s wildest imaginations could she have scripted what would come next: four straight wins during the NCAA tournament, culminating with the program’s first Final Four bid since 2006. After the Terps snipped the nets in Louisville and received their hardware on Tuesday night, they named the trophy “Regina,” as in “regional champs.”
Clutching Regina, Townsend felt as though every dream of hers had come true. Last season, she tore her ACL in an exhibition game against Goldey-Beacom College. This season, she has appeared in 16 games, attempted 20 field goals, grabbed 15 rebounds and scored 15 points. And yet there she stood, basking in the moment, thinking to herself: “We’re still here. Still fighting.” It all seemed so surreal.
“This is what you came to college for,” Townsend said Thursday, hours before the Terps left for Nashville. “This is what you play basketball for. It’s really happening. To know we’re only two games away from holding up that national trophy, it’s amazing.”