By Kathy Orton
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 3, 2007
Maryland guard-forward Marissa Coleman had eluded a Loyola defender and was going toward the basket when she abruptly turned, threw the ball to teammate Sade Wiley-Gatewood on the perimeter and yelled, "Shoot it."
It is hard to imagine that someone who had been waiting a year to return to competitive basketball would need to be told to shoot the ball, but Coleman wanted to make sure that Wiley-Gatewood felt as if she was a part of the offense, especially because it was her first game in a Maryland uniform. Wiley-Gatewood did as she was told, lofting a shot that drifted through the net, part of the seven points she scored in her debut on Dec. 21.
Three games into her Maryland basketball career, the 5-foot-9 junior point guard from Pomona, Calif., has made what many predicted would be a rocky transition look as smooth as her jump shot. It is a credit to her and her teammates that the process has gone so fluidly. When the top-ranked Terrapins (15-0) open ACC play tonight at Comcast Center against North Carolina State (11-3), the anticipated bickering over playing time has yet to materialize.
The players "were so excited that Loyola game to have her in the mix," Maryland Coach Brenda Frese said. "That's what separates this team. . . . They just understand in order to be successful and win championships, [they must accept] the team concept."
Wiley-Gatewood was one of the top prep players in the country three years ago, leading her Los Angeles area high school to two state titles and earning the Parade national player of the year award. She committed to play for Tennessee her sophomore year and was part of the Lady Vols' "Super Six" recruiting class.
But like many talented players, she found it hard to duplicate her high school success in college. As a freshman, she developed patellar tendinitis in her left knee and needed surgery. She also was suspended twice, for taking an unauthorized trip home during final exams in December and for an undisclosed violation of team rules in January. Because of the injuries and suspensions, she played in only 13 games as a freshman.
Her sophomore season, she played nine games for the Lady Vols before announcing that she was leaving Tennessee for Maryland. Wiley-Gatewood, who couldn't play for the Terrapins for a year under NCAA rules, won't discuss her reasons for transferring other than to say she was unhappy.
"I felt like I needed to go right then and there," she said. "I just had to go. I just had to go and go somewhere to be happy. I'm just glad I made the decision."
Team chemistry is a delicate balance. Maryland achieved remarkable equilibrium and harmony throughout its championship run last season. Now, with the addition of Wiley-Gatewood into the mix, some wondered how a team with five starters returning would integrate a player of Wiley-Gatewood's caliber and not end up with a lot of bruised egos.
It was easier than one might think. To begin with, Wiley-Gatewood understood that Maryland was unlikely to tinker with its successful lineup and didn't expect to start despite her impressive résumé.
"I respect that," she said. "I'm also getting minutes like a starter. I'm definitely not worried about starting."
It also helped that Maryland's players immediately embraced their new teammate.
"That's every basketball player's dream, to be on a team where you feel like family, like you have a family here," Wiley-Gatewood said. "I'm from California, so I definitely don't have family here, and by having a team that gets along together, [it] makes you feel comfortable. . . . I already felt like I was at home."
Frese is amazed at how quickly Wiley-Gatewood has meshed with the team. Because she was allowed to practice with her teammates during the past year, she already has developed a familiarity with them. It shows on the court. She had eight assists in her first game and has 13 through three games.
"It feels like she's been playing for a while, like she's been with us through the nonconference [schedule], played 15 games, the way she's played the last three games," Frese said. "That's a tribute to her."
Wiley-Gatewood, who also is averaging 13 points, says she still is learning the tendencies of her teammates. She knows it will take time before she plays with the instinct that comes with being with the same group over time.
"I'm still learning plays, who to give the ball to on the fast break," she said. "I'm not ready, ready, ready. Actually, there's a lot of players I don't know when to give them the ball or how to give them the ball yet, but every practice I'm learning."