Brenda Frese used to have a system for managing Kaila Charles. Any time the Maryland basketball coach would see Charles start to fume over a call, eyes wide and palms turned up in disbelief, she would yank her team’s leading scorer to the sideline. Either a short conversation or a quick rest — just brief enough for Charles to stalk up and down the bench once — would follow. And almost every time, Frese would tell her player the exact same thing.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time I told her the official made the right call, right or wrong,” Frese said. “Just to get her to move on.”
With a player like Charles, on-court play has never been Frese’s greatest concern. She arrived at Maryland as a McDonald’s all-American and as The Washington Post’s All-Met Player of the Year; averaged a team-high 17.9 points as a sophomore; and this season, as a junior, was one of just two unanimous selections to the all-Big Ten first team.
But earlier in Charles’s career, the fuming was an issue, especially for someone so critical to Maryland’s success, both on the court and off. She is the player who sets the tone.
“The competitive side of her is that if she made a mistake or got called for a foul that she didn’t think was a foul, it would unravel her,” Frese said, twirling her finger. “Her freshman year, I took her out of a lot of competitive situations because she was more focused on the outcome and wasn’t able to move through it. Now, she’s able to check through that emotion quicker.”
As Charles prepares to lead No. 3 seed Maryland (28-4) against No. 14 Radford (26-6) in the opening round of the NCAA tournament Saturday in College Park, she does so having spent a year not just fine-tuning her game and learning how to thrive on the perimeter, but having worked on her emotions as well.
It was the last little thing in the guard-forward’s game that made the difference between a good player and a leader. And this year, with two freshmen in the starting lineup and just one senior on the team, Charles learning to manage her emotions during games was almost as important to the Terps as the junior’s scoring prowess.
Charles leads the team with 16.9 points per game. But as Frese pointed out Friday, that isn’t worth a whole lot to Maryland if she’s on the bench in foul trouble.
“To be a leader, you have to set the example, and if I’m stuck in the past and worrying about a call that happened a couple of plays ago, then I’m not fully invested in my team,” Charles said.
She points to Maryland’s regular season loss at Iowa, where she was held to two points, the lowest-scoring game of her career, and fouled out after 30 minutes. Frese gave her a vote of confidence after the game, but Charles spent a lot of time reflecting on how her frustration that game had affected the rest of the team.
“After that game, I thought about my leadership, how I performed and how — I need to know, okay, I might not have a good night, but someone else can,” Charles said.
“We had the Minnesota game the next game, and I think that was one of the pivotal moments for our team. Through our leadership — not just mine — we were able to come back from a 16-point deficit and win. It just showed how much we can do when we come together and we have that positivity, that optimism. I just know that I’m an important factor to my team in terms of my voice and my leadership. The Iowa game made me see that.”
The next time Maryland faced Iowa, in the Big Ten tournament title game, Charles scored 36 points. She played the entire game and managed to stay out of foul trouble while three of her teammates fouled out.
Although the Terps lost that game, Charles views her ability to hone her emotions as the fruit of a season’s worth of self-improvement. The junior has worked with Maryland’s sports psychologist to better channel her competitiveness, but a lot of that work Charles has done on her own, in quiet self-reflection. It’s required an attitude adjustment.
“I’ll make a mistake and now I’ll just laugh to myself like, we’ll get it back next play,” Charles said, “and then the next play I get it back!”
Those types of small tweaks are what the Terps have been working on in the past week in preparation for the tournament. With No. 6 seed UCLA and No. 11 Tennessee filling out the College Park subregional, it would be no surprise were Maryland to advance to the Sweet 16 in Albany, where they could meet No. 2 seed Connecticut.
But what the Terps have to take care of first are the small details like managing emotions.
“In our games, we get so amped up and emotional and aggressive that sometimes our talk to the refs or our frustration with fouls, how we present ourselves to the refs, it influences the game,” junior Blair Watson said. “But fixing that little piece will definitely take our game to the next level. That’s what this week was all about: Every minute detail . . . a lot of that rides on Kaila being as great as she is, because she fuels the team, she sets the tone.”
Charles may have an extra challenge in staying focused during Saturday’s game, which happens to be the junior’s 21st birthday.
“It adds a little hype to it,” Watson said with a smile and a little dance. “Birthday weekend, we got our first game, so i’m excited, she’s excited, we’re all excited. We need a win, and we can celebrate after.”