Terps line up for their shot

Men might have more fun with­out lofty ex­pec­ta­tions With UConn weak­ened, UM thinks ti­tle is up for grabs

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - Peter Schmuck By Jonas Shaf­fer

This is what the Mary­land men’s bas­ket­ball team is likely to find out as it en­ters the 2016-17 sea­son ranked 21st in the pre­sea­son USA To­day coaches poll: It’s a lot eas­ier — and prob­a­bly a lot more fun — to spend the sea­son try­ing to prove ev­ery­body wrong than to carry the weight of hav­ing to prove ev­ery­body right.

The Terps were ranked third in both ma­jor polls at this point last sea­son and went on to the Sweet16 for the first time since 2003. That’s a suc­cess­ful sea­son by any mea­sure, but the heady pre­sea­son rank­ing left room to view it as an un­der­achieve­ment.

This year’s team won’t have to deal with that. The Women’s ex­hi­bi­tion

COL­LEGE PARK — In the off­sea­son, the Mary­land women’s bas­ket­ball team wel­comed the na­tion’s top-rated re­cruit­ing class to cam­pus, prac­ticed for its sum­mer trip as if it were an early-sea­son tour­na­ment, trav­eled to Italy for two ex­hi­bi­tion games and en­tered fall prac­tice with a pair of pre­sea­son All-Americans an­chor­ing a con­sen­sus top-10 team.

Maybe just as im­por­tant, Bre­anna Ste­wart walked across a stage in Storrs, Conn., in a cap and gown.

“There’s this thing called grad­u­a­tion in the women’s game,” Terps coach Brenda Frese joked Tues­day at the team’s me­dia day. “Af­ter four years, that’s a great thing.”

Af­ter four years of Con­necti­cut dom­i­nance, af­ter four sea­sons end­ing in Huskies ti­tles, there is a re­newed hope — and a not mis­guided one — that some­one else can win it all this April. Mary­land played Con­necti­cut rea­son­ably close in its lone matchup last year, and still Frese ac­knowl­edged Tues­day, some­what sur­pris­ingly, that it was ex­cit­ing to en­ter a sea­son “re­ally not play­ing for sec­ond place.”

In­deed, as the Terps pre­pare for their Nov. 13 sea­son opener against Mas­sachusetts Low­ell, the ques­tion be­ing asked across the NCAA is not: Why pick any­body but the Huskies? It’s more in­clu­sive: Why not Mary­land, or Notre Dame, or Louisville, or South Carolina, or any of the num­ber of schools that have waited for an NCAA tour­na­ment that doesn’t feel like a corona­tion event?

“It’s re­ally not hard to look at like, ‘Oh, my gosh, ev­ery­one has a chance,’ ” sopho­more for­ward Kiah Gille­spie said.

“I feel like it’s re­ally open this year to any­one,” fresh­man cen­ter Jenna Staiti said.

“This year, it’s kind of like, ‘It’s any­one’s game,’ and that’s an awe­some feel­ing,” ju­nior guard Kris­ten Con­froy said. “But in many ways, we had that all along.”

That is maybe what got the Terps into trou­ble last March.

Only two teams all sea­son got within 10 points of Con­necti­cut, which fea­tured Ste­wart, Mo­riah Jef­fer­son and Mor­gan Tuck, all se­nior All-Americans and all top-three picks in the WNBA draft. Notre Dame lost, 91-81, in early De­cem­ber. Twenty-three days later, Mary­land fell, 83-73, at Madi­son Square Gar­den. (Con­necti­cut sand­wiched that scare with vic­to­ries by a com­bined 108 points.)

The Terps were 30-3 en­ter­ing the NCAA tour­na­ment, and they were Big Ten Con­fer­ence reg­u­lar-sea­son and tour­na­ment cham­pi­ons for the sec­ond straight year. That first de­feat against Con­necti­cut had given them maybe as much con­fi­dence as any blowout win. “It was like, ‘We have a shot,’ ” Con­froy said. That was more than most teams thought.

Ul­ti­mately, a loss to the Huskies did end their sea­son. But not those Huskies. Mary­land was un­com­monly in­ef­fi­cient in an open­ing-round NCAA tour­na­ment win over Iona at Xfin­ity Cen­ter, and faced a short-handed Wash­ing­ton team in the sec­ond round. For the first time in three sea­sons, the No. 2 seed Terps didn’t make it to the Fi­nal Four, or even out of Col­lege Park. The sev­enth-seeded Huskies won, 74-65.

There would be no re­match, only re­morse: Wash­ing­ton next faced a No. 3 seed and a No. 4 seed be­fore Syra­cuse, also a No. 4 seed, ousted it in the Fi­nal Four. The Orange, which Mary­land had beaten by 18 in De­cem­ber, then lost by 31 in the NCAA fi­nal.

“I think be­cause we matched up with [Con­necti­cut] so well … we were kind of look­ing ahead at games,” se­nior cen­ter Bri­onna Jones (Aberdeen) said. “And I think that kind of bit us in the butt a lit­tle bit.”

The Terps feel now, as they felt then, that their best is good enough to beat any­one else. Across the Big Ten, coaches and me­dia don’t dis­agree; on Mon­day, Mary­land again was picked to win the league in both pre­sea­son polls.

In se­nior guard Sha­tori Walker-Kim­brough and Jones, both unan­i­mous pre­sea­son all-con­fer­ence picks, the Terps re­turn the na­tion’s most ac­cu­rate 3-point shooter and reign­ing field-goal-per­cent­age cham­pion, re­spec­tively. Among the seven new play­ers — six fresh­men and one trans­fer — there should be enough to re­place grad­u­ated point guards Brene Mose­ley and Chloe Pavlech, and front­court reg­u­lars Malina Howard and Tier­ney Pfir- man.

Three more Mc­Don­ald’s All Americans will help Mary­land. Des­tiny Slocum is ex­pected to step in as the team’s pri­mary ball-han­dler. Blair Wat­son, only re­cently cleared to re­turn from a labrum in­jury, fin­ished a re­cent scrim­mage third on the team in scor­ing. Kaila Charles is the team’s sec­ond-fastest player and could play at power for­ward in some line­ups.

“We have a great chance of be­ing a re­ally great team,” Walker-Kim­brough said. She is the only player faster than Charles, and also maybe the Terps’ most de­lib­er­ate, com­par­ing the sea­son to a marathon.

Mary­land hosts Con­necti­cut in late De­cem­ber, 13 games into the sea­son, but she is, for now, more wor­ried about what hap­pens in between. That is not to dis­count the Huskies, for whom a step back is only a top-five pre­sea­son rank­ing. (They could en­ter Col­lege Park af­ter Christ­mas with an 87-game win­ning streak.)

But the Terps’ up­set loss to Wash­ing­ton, Con­necti­cut’s off­sea­son at­tri­tion and the specter of her own­loom­ing grad­u­a­tion have made Walker-Kim­brough more aware than ever of the process re­quired for per­fec­tion. It’s hard work, al­ways.

Plus, Mary­land goes to Louisville on Dec. 1. As good as the Huskies are, the Car­di­nals might be bet­ter. That’s the fun of this sea­son: the mas­tery of the sport’s big­gest mys­tery.

“I think ev­ery­body’s fully aware that it’s more wide open this year,” Frese said. “There are no Bre­anna Ste­warts on any­one’s ros­ter any­more.”

NOTE: Ju­nior for­ward Aja El­li­son (knee) and ju­nior guard Kiara Les­lie (an­kle) will red­shirt this sea­son af­ter suf­fer­ing in­juries this off­sea­son, Frese said. Each will have two years of el­i­gi­bil­ity re­main­ing next sea­son.

KEN­NETH K. LAM/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

The Mary­land women pose for pic­tures dur­ing me­dia day. Af­ter Con­necti­cut dom­i­nated for four years, there’s re­newed hope for other teams to earn a ti­tle. “This year, it’s kind of like ‘It’s any­one’s game,’ and that’s an awe­some feel­ing,” guard Kris­ten Con­froy said.

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