The senior guard’s bobblehead will be available for fans to take home next week. But to get the real Watson smiling, nodding and chattering away, all you have to do is ask her a question about defense.
“When I step out on the court and Coach [Brenda Frese] says, ‘What do you want?’ I’m always like, ‘Defense,’ ” Watson said, her words spilling out rapidly. “I’m like, ‘Who can I disrupt today?’ ”
Watson is Maryland’s defensive leader, a major transformation in the guard’s career trajectory. She began at Maryland as an offensive-minded, three-point specialist but converted her game after tearing her ACL her sophomore year.
Now she has a critical role on a Terrapins team that is trying to shift its identity a bit as well. No. 20 Maryland (12-4, 3-2 Big Ten) is looking to notch back-to-back conference victories for the first time this season when it hosts Nebraska (13-3, 3-2) on Thursday at 8 p.m. The Terps believe the surefire way to do so is by focusing on defense.
That focus isn’t temporary or sudden — though Maryland under Frese is perhaps most associated with blistering offenses, the Terps have increasingly made defense their focus. They have a new scheme, based on the defense that took the Texas Tech men’s team to the national championship game last year, and as a result, Watson has become a crucial leader.
“I would say our defense,” point guard Ashley Owusu said when asked what it will take to string together a pair of wins in Big Ten play. “Our defense has been good, so if we just keep that up, defense will lead to our offense and we'll be good.”
Defense was a major topic of conversation between Maryland’s previous two games. They dropped a five-point decision at Iowa on Thursday and had a players’ only meeting after that in which they watched film and gave each other detailed critiques.
One of the main takeaways was that the team wasn’t communicating well enough. The Terps’ new scheme relies heavily on switching so that Maryland can get in passing lanes for steals and take off in transition, their strength on offense, but because of that communication has to be constant.
“You’ll see somebody push somebody up and be like, ‘No! You’ve got to get up there!’ It’s all of us just playing on one another,” Watson said. “Communication is huge for us because if we’re not talking, then we’re not moving and our defense really breaks down. But when we’re all collective, five cylinders, all jelling, you can see that our defense works really, really well.”
The switch-heavy scheme has been paying off for the most part — Maryland entered Wednesday tied for second in the country with 13.9 steals a game and ranked fourth in scoring margin (plus-26.4). But when it doesn’t work, poor defense can lead to issues with tempo, which plays a part in poor shooting performances such as the one the Terps had at Iowa, where they shot 31 percent from the field.
On Friday and Saturday, ahead of a win at then-No. 24 Michigan, Maryland set a goal to communicate better, among other things. The Terrapins had what the team calls character coaching, in which they focused on how to effectively talk to differing personalities. On Sunday in Ann Arbor, the Terps forced 22 turnovers, held Michigan to 33.9 percent shooting and allowed just two three-pointers.
Watson led the team with 20 points, including six three-pointers — she still boasts a lethal perimeter shot — a strong offensive showing she attributes to her defense.
“It was nice to see a couple shots go in. . . . Just going to keep moving on, doing what I do, playing the defense that I can play and providing for my team like I told Coach B I would,” Watson said.
Against Nebraska, she'll lead her team as they try to contain 6-1 sophomore forward Leigha Brown (13.4 points per game) and 6-5 junior center Kate Cain (10.1 points per game). Watson called the win against Michigan a huge step for Maryland's defense and communication — two factors she believes will help the Terps find the consistency they seek.
“We’re having such clear communication that it’s fun,” Watson said. “We’re having fun, moving the basketball, shooting threes, getting layups, just doing what we do now. You can really, really see that it’s a big jump.”
Although they have played only nine players all season, the Terps are down to nine on the roster after sophomore Olivia Owens decided to take a redshirt year. The 6-4 center missed a long stretch of time at the beginning of the season with mononucleosis and didn’t play in a game this year.
She joins three other sidelined Terrapins. Freshman guard Zoe Young tore her ACL before the season and had surgery in October, junior guard Channise Lewis tore her left lateral meniscus and had surgery in November, and sophomore forward Mimi Collins, a transfer from Tennessee, decided to take a redshirt year.