Maryland junior Kaila Charles was given the "Spirit of a Terrapin" award — a Ninja Turtle helmet — after scoring 29 points, including the game-clinching final layup, after the Terps' comeback win against Minnesota in College Park. (Maryland Athletics)

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles helmet made its debut after last week’s comeback win against Minnesota. The first piñata of the season appeared in the locker room, filled with candy and ripe for smashing, after a win over Northwestern. The Maryland women’s basketball team played a game of knockout instead of holding practice on one of its lighter days this month.

Welcome to Coach Brenda Frese’s February funhouse, where the college basketball season rolls into its fourth month and starts to feel like a slog but the Terps turn to creative methods for avoiding stagnation.

“It just keeps things fun and light,” junior Kaila Charles said of the coaching staff’s various surprises for the team. “… Like with the piñata, it’s crazy. Everybody starts tackling people to get the candy, so it just makes things interesting and live. It makes it lit, honestly. The coaches really work on our mentality, not just physicality.”

It’s no secret that coaches across college basketball change up their methods in February, the time of year when players’ bodies are tired but teams ideally should be peaking ahead of postseason tournaments.

For No. 11 Maryland (24-3, 13-3 Big Ten), which has won nine of its past 10 games and has secured a double-bye in the Big Ten tournament with just Monday’s game at Purdue (17-12, 8-8) and Saturday’s home game against Illinois (10-17, 8-8) left in the regular season, the challenge is twofold.

Frese must figure out how to keep her players’ legs fresh in February just like everybody else. But at Maryland, where the Terps have yet to lose more than four league games in a season since they joined the Big Ten in 2014 and were a force in the ACC for years before that, Frese also has had to learn how to keep her players focused and engaged.

It’s a good challenge to have, but it’s something Frese must be aware of all season long. February is simply when motivational tactics ratchet up.

“It’s why they get awards, usually new gear or something, every time we complete a season sweep of a team,” Frese said Sunday morning. “Because it’s really hard to do. Glenn Farello, who’s at Paul VI [High in Fairfax City, Va.] on the boys’ side, when we connected early in my career, he would say to me, ‘It’s got to be hard, right? You’re supposed to beat everyone, and it can become ho-hum.’ I remember him telling me about taking his kids to go get ice cream. It’s not big. It’s just stuff that you’ve got to make them remember we’re not just checking a box, not just think, ‘Oh, you’re supposed to win,’ and on to the next.”

Frese finds small ways to keep her players motivated and engaged, and that often happens during the team’s film study.

The 17th-year coach used to draw a lot from the Connecticut women’s basketball team — “But I had to get off of that. Personally I felt like I was spending too much time on that,” Frese said, laughing — and now Maryland’s staff is constantly on the lookout for video clips, quotes and other media that could inspire the Terps.

Sometimes it comes easily. Frese played highlights from Rutgers’s upset win over Maryland in College Park all week after that game.

“They played it so many times — their post players saying how they did such a great job — throughout the locker rooms, in the couch area,” center Shakira Austin said. “[Frese] put it on the TVs, and we used it as fuel. We used that a lot.”

Other times, the Terps get more creative.

Before the Super Bowl, Frese sent out a group text asking her staff to try to find anything from the game they could use. The staff settled on showing Julian Edelman’s postgame interview after the New England Patriots’ win, conveying a message about perseverance via Edelman’s journey from a seventh-round draft pick who struggled for playing time early in his NFL career to Super Bowl MVP.

When the team was struggling with communication, interim assistant coach Kaitlynn Fratz found video clips of the Marquette women’s basketball team’s in-game huddles and put them up side-by-side with Maryland’s. Marquette, which was ranked in the top 10 this season for the first time in program history, was energetic, loud and in sync.

“We showed them and showed us,” Frese said. “The visual was so powerful, and then it collectively took our team to another level. That’s what we’re all doing in basketball, right? Stealing. We steal plays. We steal this. We steal that.”

Inspiration from video clips and film study is effective for keeping the Terps focused. But the fun part comes after wins.

Maryland has handed out “Tough Terp” awards after games for three or four seasons, a tradition that grew from a germ of an idea from Farello at Paul VI.


Maryland junior Kaila Charles smashes a piñata after the Terps' comeback win over Minnesota. (Maryland Athletics)

After wins, the hardest worker of the game is awarded a hard hat, the best rebounder is given a bottle of Windex for successfully cleaning the glass, the best defender is given a lock for locking down the opponent, players who went on hot streaks are awarded a plastic firefighter hat, and the player who best embodied the “spirit of a Terrapin,” as the staff termed it, receives a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles helmet.

The key is that Frese and her staff are stingy with the awards. The Ninja Turtles helmet was given out for the first time all season just last week, when Charles had 29 points and the game-clinching layup to secure a come-from-behind win over Minnesota at home.

The piñata was a new addition added for February. Frese had the idea after her parents said something, she can’t remember what, that reminded her of playing Whack-a-Mole at the state fair. She texted her director of recruiting, Joe Glowacki, and the idea formalized into a “Terrapinata.” Glowacki is in charge of purchasing and stuffing a different piñata before every game.

After the win at Minnesota, Charles got to do the honors.

“At first, when they told us about the piñata, we were like, ‘What?’ Now every game we’re like, ‘Okay, I want to be the one to break it,'” Charles said. “They come in with music, and then you get the stick, and you’re all just hype and dancing, so you’re ready. You want to get a win. By this time of year, your legs feel dead, but you’ve got to lock in mentally because this is when you either thrive or you fold. So all these little things, it all adds up, especially going so deep into the season.”

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