Perched on a chair at Xfinity Center last week, Stephanie Jones folded her hands in her lap, cast her gaze down and smiled as she recounted one particularly brazen move from Maryland’s Feb. 25 game against Purdue.
The Terrapins had trailed for three quarters until Jones helped lift them to victory with an 11-point tear in the fourth. In the middle of the decisive run, the forward cut to the basket with a crossover dribble, then took a stab step for a reverse layup to put the Terps up six.
“It’s all just things that we work on in practice,” Jones said modestly, even though Terps Coach Brenda Frese had guffawed at that idea minutes earlier.
“We didn’t teach her that,” Frese said with a laugh.
“I’ve seen her practice it,” Jones’s mother, Sanciarhea, said on the phone this week, and now we’re getting closer to the truth. “She told me — she was talking about their center and she said, ‘There is no way she’s getting my ball.’ She knew she had the girl on her back, and she said, ‘I’m reversing this and taking it back up because there’s no way she’s blocking my ball.’ Who had that move? Hakeem Olajuwon? Yeah. That was her Olajuwon dream shake.”
The shyness in front of reporters is classic Jones; the junior from Havre de Grace, Md., often only reveals her true competitive self to those who know her best. But her modesty isn’t feigned. It’s simply Jones’s nature to blend into the team.
In a way, that’s the story of her college career.
On paper, her stats don’t immediately jump out — her 13 points and 6.2 rebounds per game make her the Terps’ third-leading scorer and rebounder. When Maryland received a host of Big Ten honors Monday, including coach of the year for Brenda Frese and first-team all-conference for Kaila Charles, Jones was voted to the second team by media members.
Even in the category of Joneses at Maryland, fans may first think of Jones’s sister Brionna, a former all-American who helped lead the Terps to the Final Four in 2014 and 2015.
Yet for all of her quiet humility and work in the shadows of her sister and Charles, Jones is making her own mark at Maryland.
As the top-seeded Terps (26-3) prepare for a Big Ten quarterfinal matchup Friday in Indianapolis against Michigan State (20-10), coaches and players are pointing to Jones as a key figure in Maryland’s return to form this season after a readjustment period last year.
“Basically, Steph does a lot for us, and I don’t think she gets the credit she deserves,” Charles said in College Park this week. “She’s the unsung hero of our team.”
Jones’s Olajuwon-esque reverse at Purdue wasn’t just highlight-reel fodder. It was emblematic of how important the 20-year-old is to the Terps.
Charles, the team’s leading scorer at 16 points per game, was subbed out in the fourth quarter against the Boilermakers because of foul trouble, and Jones took over. She similarly stepped up in Maryland’s loss to Iowa: When Charles was shut down and scored just two points, Jones muscled her way to 21 points, matching her season high, to keep the Terps competitive. In a last-second win against Minnesota at home in which Charles scored the final four points, Jones had a huge steal with 26 seconds remaining to set up Charles for the tying layup.
“She’s a starter, but she’s like that sixth man that everybody needs,” said freshman center Shakira Austin, who also mentioned Jones’s importance as a mentor to the team’s young post players. “She’s always in the right spot, always puts the team first and can still get like 17 points in a game. It might be a silent 17, but without that, we wouldn’t have won.”
Jones’s dependability also has been crucial to Maryland, both when the Terps struggled with focus and accountability at the beginning of the Big Ten slate and when they needed to pull out a few tight victories at the end to win the conference. She’s the team’s most efficient shooter who plays significant minutes, making 57.5 percent of her attempts from the field.
“She holds us down when things are going a little crazy,” Charles said.
But efficiency isn’t always glamorous.
Jones doesn’t mind that she gets less attention than Charles, Austin and Austin’s classmate Taylor Mikesell — both rookies were voted to the Big Ten all-freshman team, and Mikesell was voted freshman of the year by the league’s coaches. Jones may be ultracompetitive, but she’s a supportive teammate first — a dichotomy borne of her upbringing as the third of four tightknit children in a basketball family.
Jarred, the oldest at 25, plays professionally in Finland. Brionna, 23, was drafted eighth overall in 2017 by the Connecticut Sun. Jordan, 18, is in high school.
The siblings grew up playing fierce two-on-two matches in the yard at home, and even now, their mother said whoever has the best game sets the bar for the week. This week, Jarred had 33 points and 12 rebounds, so that’s the goal his younger siblings will chase.
But Jones grew up with Brionna as her role model, in particular.
“When it came time for us to sit down and ask Steph if she wanted to apply to the science and math magnet at school, she had already done so because Brionna was in it,” Sanciarhea Jones said. “Bri would set the goals, and she was trying to break those goals.”
Frese recruited the sisters separately, taking care to treat each as an individual.
The coach liked Stephanie Jones’s competitiveness most of all; Frese recalls one story of how Jones, after a bad loss, sat in the back seat of the car taking out her anger by snapping pencils. The forward wears No. 24 because that’s how many points she scored when she was a 6-year-old trying to make a point to the 7-year-old boy who lived across the street.
“We call that Angry Steph,” Frese said, laughing. “But for her, that’s always led to hard work. When she came in off her ACL injury her freshman year, in Bri’s shadow, she had to work through that. All she’s ever done is really kind of stayed within who she is, put her head down and go to work."