The song started just as the last few reporters walked off the court at Xfinity Center, and the Maryland women’s basketball team, dressed in fresh white home jerseys, got in formation right on cue.
Each player took her spot on the floor without discussion as Ciara’s “Level Up” thumped over the arena’s loudspeakers, but this was no shooting drill. The Terrapins closed their preseason media day Thursday by dancing and laughing through a few beats of a choreographed number while their coaches looked on as if it were a normal occurrence.
And why shouldn’t dance breaks be a regularity? As Coach Brenda Frese enters her 17th season leading the program, the Terps have plenty to dance about. Maryland was a young, relatively inexperienced team a year ago, when it finished second in the Big Ten and was knocked out of the NCAA tournament in the second round.
Now, “we’re returning four starters from last season, which allowed us to bring back about 75 percent of our offense,” Frese said.
No one has more of a reason to bust a move than Kaila Charles.
Charles, a 6-foot-1 guard, lead the Terps last year as a sophomore with 17.9 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. When wing Blair Watson was declared out for the season in early January with a torn ACL in her right knee, Maryland was left wanting for secondary scoring. That Watson ended the year as the team’s second-leading scorer at 13.8 points per game in just 17 contests is evidence of how much the Terps struggled to find another player who could reliably get to the basket.
This year, Maryland has more tools on offense. It lost Eleanna Christinaki, last season’s third-leading scorer who left the program over the summer after just 22 games at Maryland, but Frese is confident that other players will step up.
Frese said forward Brianna Fraser, the team’s lone senior and last year’s fifth-leading scorer at 10.2 points per game, has become more assertive, as has junior Stephanie Jones, who averaged 10.8 points. Last year’s starting point guard, Channise Lewis, now a sophomore, has a year of experience under her belt.
Watson was cleared for contact just Wednesday and said she is expected to be able to go “full throttle” sometime around the start of the new year, but Frese said they won’t rush the process.
The Terps also brought in Sara Vujacic, a junior guard who averaged 16.7 points last year at Walters State Community College in Tennessee, to take Christinaki’s spot. Vujacic, a native of Slovenia, is the younger sister of Sasha Vujacic, a two-time NBA champion with the Los Angeles Lakers.
In a word, Frese and her players described Vujacic as a shooter. She will be key in helping draw the defense away from Charles.
“We have so much more help,” Charles said. “Our transition game is better. We have a lot more people running the floor. We’re very versatile in terms of, Bri can bring up the ball, I can bring up the ball, we have our point guards who can bring up the ball.”
Thanks to all that newfound support, Charles spent more time on the perimeter this summer than she did last season. Maryland hopes more offensive threats will mean fewer double- and triple-teams on Charles and therefore more freedom for her to move around in space.
“When you talk about Kaila Charles, I think she really grew up and became a leader for us last season. A lot of players, when you have to produce every single day, what that responsibility looks like, she’s a player that wants and accepts that responsibility,” Frese said. “A big piece for us as I look on the floor is we have more weapons, obviously more scorers. The ability to shoot the three right now is very high for us. . . . Another key element for us is Blair Watson and how quickly we need to get her back on the floor.”
Watson made her biggest impact from the wing last season; she had made a team-leading 63 three-pointers (third-most in the Big Ten) when the injury ended her season early. Although Watson said she feels good after undergoing surgery to repair the ligament in February, she still has a mental hurdle to overcome.
“It’s still hard now, because I did tear it going up for a layup,” she said. “So now when I go up for layups, I have to reassure myself that everything is okay. Like, ‘Don’t get in your mind; your leg is perfectly fine.' ”
Frese isn’t leaving it up to Charles, Watson and her other experienced players to impact the offense. The Terps brought in the No. 5 freshman class in the country, according to ESPN. Shakira Austin, a 6-5 forward and McDonald’s all-American from Fredericksburg; Taylor Mikesell, the reigning national high school three-point championship winner; and Olivia Owens, ESPN’s No. 5 high school post player, all danced along with their teammates Thursday.
Although they’re still adjusting, Frese doesn’t shy away from giving freshmen opportunities, and she said she expects the newcomers to make an impact: She cited Mikesell’s ability on the perimeter as another boost for the offense in general and Charles in particular.
“Everything is coming together well,” Charles said. “Now we’ve just got to go to work.”