There’s no way it has been that long since she arrived on campus with five other freshmen in tow, part of a robust recruiting class featuring highly touted point guard Destiny Slocum.
Okay, that last one feels like a lifetime ago.
“I would say it’s been one hell of a ride,” Watson said recently, a black engagement band on her finger indicating just how much she has grown up at College Park. “It’s been adversity after adversity after adversity, and looking back I’m just like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe we made it through.’ ”
Three years ago, Watson, Kaila Charles and Stephanie Jones entered the 2016-17 season as part of a top-ranked, six-woman freshman class that took a major blow when Slocum transferred at the end of the year. It marked the beginning of a somewhat trying time for the Maryland women’s basketball team, if not on paper — the Terps have made both the Big Ten tournament title game and the NCAA tournament in each of the past two seasons — then in the confines of Xfinity Center, where the team stretched to patch over holes in its roster. Since 2017, Maryland has lost seven players to transfers — though some graduated and left before their eligibility expired — and hasn’t made it out of the NCAA tournament’s second round.
Now, only Watson, Charles and Jones remain of that original freshman class. They stuck around to help carry the Terps through their thinner days and came out on the other side to see the team healthier than it has been in years.
The fourth-ranked Terps debut in the Associated Press poll’s top five for the first time since the 2012-13 season. They welcome a slew of highly touted freshmen that puts their numbers over 10 players for the first time since 2016-17 and return all five starters from last season. They were picked to win the Big Ten, with Charles earning the preseason nod for conference player of the year.
The three seniors’ final year is their best shot at a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
“It would be the most fitting way to send them out,” said Coach Brenda Frese, who is entering her 18th year helming Maryland. “Because they have stayed the course and kept their heads down through adversity when we’ve had injuries or transfers and things where the program has taken a hit. They’ve always been the most resilient ones.”
The seniors’ roles on this team are clear: They’re tasked with shepherding a relatively young squad through the season, both on and off the court. Junior college transfer Sara Vujacic rounds out the senior class, but having just joined the Terps last year, she is in a slightly different leadership position.
Charles, Jones and Watson are the stewards of Maryland’s culture, a position Frese made sure to emphasize to the seniors in a preseason meeting. The Terps have plenty of reinforcements this year from freshmen Ashley Owusu (the top-ranked point guard in the nation out of high school), Diamond Miller (a rangy, 6-foot-3 wing) and Faith Masonius (a vocal forward) to their splashy sophomores, center Shakira Austin and Taylor Mikesell.
As a result, Frese expects her seniors to bear a slightly lighter burden in games. A huge part of their role is to instill the program's values, habits and mind-set in their younger teammates.
“If you want to be a championship team, a Final Four contender, you have to sacrifice, which is what they’re all going to do this year,” Frese said. “Points, minutes — nobody’s going to play the kind of minutes they’ve played out of necessity the last two years. … I expect Kaila’s minutes to go down, her points to go down, because for us to get out of the second round, where we’ve been the last two years, we’ve got to be able to have that depth. We’ve got to be able to have more than two scorers, three scorers. We’ve got to be able to have all five that are options and share the basketball.”
That message was reinforced for Charles during the team’s first exhibition game, in which Owusu and Miller earned spots in the starting lineup.
“The freshmen are so good, but they’re really young,” Charles said. “They’re learning. That was their first scrimmage, so I had to be that voice on the court to remind them to keep talking or remind them what they needed to do. I’ve always been a leader for us, but this year it’s very crucial that I’m that speaking piece at all times. Because throughout the years I still had that senior leadership ahead of me. … Now, I’m that senior.”
The Terps were upset by UCLA in the second round of the NCAA tournament in front of their fans in College Park, a loss that is now being used as motivation by the seniors. Their objectives are to secure a high enough seed for Maryland to host the first weekend of March Madness and then to atone for the loss and get out of College Park.
“We don’t want to feel that same hurt this year,” Charles said. “So that loss is motivation for the veterans to get to the Sweet 16 and hopefully further. We only have one more shot, and I want to go out with a bang, you know what I’m saying? We’re trying to get to the highest point, which is hopefully a national championship. We just have to step on the court and do what we can.”