INDIANAPOLIS — Ask Kaila Charles how she is able to lead the No. 17 Maryland women’s basketball team in scoring, rebounding and blocks as a sophomore, and she probably will mention the unwavering support of her teammates.
“It’s definitely my teammates finding me when I’m open, and they’re encouraging me to take shots,” Charles reiterated Friday.
Her humility is genuine, but make no mistake: The Washington Post’s 2015-16 All-Met Player of the Year out of Riverdale Baptist has long been the backbone of this Maryland team, which she willed to a 67-54 win over No. 7 seed Indiana in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals Friday with a game-high 24 points.
The second-seeded Terrapins (24-6) will face No. 3 seed Nebraska on Saturday.
All season, Charles has helped patch mistakes made by an inexperienced, shorthanded roster with pinpoint jumpers and taut defense that she makes look effortless. She did the same thing Friday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, kick-starting Maryland’s fledgling offense with a crisp jump shot; taking care of Indiana’s best scorer and ballhandler, Tyra Buss, on defense; and sealing the win with four consecutive free throws to cap a 13-3 run at the end of the game.
“She’s like a track athlete with high-tops on,” Indiana Coach Teri Moren said after the game. “She’s a superb athlete but has enough wiggle to get to the basket, but then she has the ability to pull up and elevate and shoot a true jump shot. That’s what makes her so difficult because if you back up, she’s going to pull up and make you pay. If you press up, she’s going to make you pay because she’s going to more than likely break you down and get around you.”
Maryland Coach Brenda Frese knew Charles was going to be the team’s go-to player before this season started. The issue, after guard Blair Watson tore her anterior cruciate ligament in January, has been finding a secondary scoring option.
As of Friday, the Terps were still trying to solve that puzzle — at halftime against Indiana, Charles led with 14 points while no other Maryland player had more than six.
Charles finished 9 for 18 from the field and had seven rebounds, five assists and two turnovers, though she picked up a fourth foul with 8:49 left. Stephanie Jones, Channise Lewis and Brianna Fraser each added 10 points, and Fraser led the team with eight rebounds, but only Charles was quick to get going. The lack of support allowed Indiana to stay close most of the game.
Lewis, a freshman point guard, made the Terps’ only two three-pointers, while senior Kristen Confroy, who is the most efficient three-point shooter in the Big Ten, went 0 for 4 from deep. The quick-shooting Eleanna Christinaki had just four points on 2-for-9 shooting from the field.
“It gave me a lot of confidence actually,” Lewis said. “I was just reading the defender. She was going up on the screen, and I just took my shot, and it went in, and the second three, my teammates found me open, and I just shot it again with the same confidence.”
What worked in Maryland’s favor was that Indiana (17-14) beat Michigan State in four overtimes Thursday in the longest game in the history of the Big Ten tournament, men’s or women’s. The Terps mixed in half-court and full-court presses to further tire Indiana.
The Hoosiers’ best players, Buss and Amanda Cahill, each played 60 minutes against Michigan State. That game, which lasted nearly three hours, threw off Indiana’s pregame routine — the players opted to rest rather than do their normal walk-through — and left them out of energy by the end of the third quarter. Still, Indiana refused to use exhaustion as an excuse.
“I would never say this in front of our kids,” Moren said. “It just looked like down the stretch we ran out of — we were running on low octane, and we didn’t talk about that at all. We didn’t want to feel like that was going to be our excuse for why our shots weren’t falling or we weren’t getting stops. But I thought you could tell, especially with [Buss and Cahill], that fatigue was finally setting in.”
Cahill led the Hoosiers with 17 points and Buss finished with 13 points, three assists and five turnovers.
The teams went back and forth all night until Jones, aggressive as ever in the post, made a layup to make it 56-51 with 4:18 to play. Indiana made just one more shot, a three-pointer, the rest of the game as Maryland finally pulled ahead. Charles scored six of the final 13 points.