In a nation loaded with basketball talent from coast to coast, USA Basketball had countless options to choose from as it formed its roster heading to Puerto Rico in June. Whoever would round out the team would be tasked with winning the nation’s fourth gold medal at the 2021 FIBA Women’s AmeriCup.
Twenty athletes accepted invitations to the initial team trials in April, and only 12 remained when the roster was announced on June 6. Maryland women’s basketball would have two of its star players in the chase for gold: junior guards Ashley Owusu and Diamond Miller. Along with South Carolina and North Carolina State, Maryland was one of three schools to have two players represent its school on the nation’s roster.
The United States ran the table in the biennial competition involving the 10 national teams, winning six games in one week. In just over three months, Maryland’s dynamic backcourt went from Big Ten Tournament Co-MVPs to gold medalists.
As it does more often than not, Maryland heads into the new season with a major target on its back. The Terps are not only the preseason’s fourth-ranked team in the country but are the consensus favorite to win the Big Ten.
The respect does not come with any doubts, either. Since joining the Big Ten in 2014, the Terps have won either the regular season or conference tournament title (or both) every year except for 2018. In seven seasons, the Terps are 109-13 in Big Ten play, good for an astounding 0.893 winning percentage. If Maryland is to continue its reign over one of the nation’s best leagues, there is no doubt who bears that responsibility.
“It starts when you talk about our co-MVPs last year in the Big Ten Tournament, as well as gold medalists in the AmeriCup this past summer with USA Basketball, Ashley Owusu and Diamond Miller,” head coach Brenda Frese said in October at the team’s media day. “Veteran, seasoned backcourt now with two years of experience...we’re really kinda concentrated on pushing them to be better leaders, bigger leaders as they go into their third year.”
In addition to their postseason honors, Owusu and Miller were both named to the All-Big Ten First Team last season. Both players averaged over 17 points per game, and Owusu was named the Ann Meyers Drysdale award recipient for the nation’s best shooting guard. This season, Miller is on that award’s watch list, while Owusu has been moved to the Nancy Lieberman Award Watch List for the country’s best point guard.
To say the expectations are high for these two may be an understatement. A look at this past summer could support what they are.
Whether they would be major contributors or not would mean little. Being a part of the brand that is USA Basketball is a valuable experience that simply cannot be replicated.
While Miller and Owusu are coached by one of the nation’s best in Frese — the 2021 AP National Coach of the Year — it cannot hurt to be surrounded by other greats. Dawn Staley, the head coach of the AmeriCup squad, is also the head coach at South Carolina, where she was crowned a national champion in 2017. The roster was also packed with six 2020-21 AP All-Americans outside of Owusu, including first-teamers Aliyah Boston and Rhyne Howard.
“The experience was great,” Miller said. “I mean, playing with people that are particularly number one draft picks or top first-rounders. It was really cool just because I have dreams and aspirations outside of college. So just to play with those type of girls was a lot of fun and playing with that coaching staff was amazing. It was a great experience. I enjoyed it and I learned a lot.”
Miller started two of the games and appeared in three, averaging 4.7 points, four rebounds and two assists per game. The AmeriCup victory gave Miller a remarkable third gold medal after being a part of the 2019 U19 World Cup and 2017 U16 World Cup teams. For Owusu, it was her first time playing for USA Basketball. The Woodbridge, Virginia, native made sure to take everything in as she won her first gold medal.
“It was a great experience,” Owusu said. “That was my first time, as you know, playing USA and playing overseas. So, just getting used to the style of play, refs, physicality and everything like that, I’m bringing that, you know, back here, back to my team and keeping everything that I learned there and for getting back here.”
Owusu was more of a contributor on the team, averaging 5.8 points, three rebounds and 3.2 assists in six games played, two of which she started. She added nine points in USA’s 74-59 victory over Puerto Rico in the gold medal game.
To win a gold medal while representing your home country is surreal in itself. To do it while playing with a close friend and teammate only adds to the experience.
“It was really special,” Owusu said. “Diamond and I are really close and it was cool for us to do that together, especially it being my first experience, so it was cool.”
With the start of the 2021-22 season just one week away, the gold medal should only be part of the journey for one of America’s most highly-touted backcourts.
The feelings surrounding the program following its shocking 64-61 loss to Texas in last March’s Sweet 16 are no secret. Averaging 90.1 points per game, the Terps possessed the nation’s most prolific offense in three seasons. Maryland ran through the Big Ten with ease, and it is safe to say that the expectations were greater. Bringing back virtually everyone this season, the mantra is to “complete the mission.”
“Just complete the mission and focus on the details,” Miller said of this season’s expectations. “The reason why we lost to Texas was details, and yeah, we might have won a lot of games in the past, but those details affected us in March Madness. In the beginning of the season, making sure that we really focus on the details, even though we’re winning, just focus on the details and good things should happen for us in the future.”
This year’s Maryland team will most likely go as far as its two star guards take them. Frese’s team looks to have an incredible amount of depth, but it needs Owusu and Miller to lead it. Owusu now carries the weight of one of the best players women’s college basketball has to offer, as publications such as The Athletic have already tabbed her with preseason All-America honors.
“Just being poised and staying true to myself,” Owusu said of dealing with the expectations. “Obviously, I’m wanting to come back better and stronger every year, but not letting everything get to my head and just staying true to myself.”
While Miller did not play in Maryland’s first exhibition against Fairmont State on Oct. 29, Owusu was on her A-game. She recorded 18 points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals in only 16 minutes played.
The first assessment for Owusu, Miller and the Terps comes on Nov. 9, for a morning tip against Longwood. Maryland is expected to run through the early part of its nonconference slate, as the first real adversity will come in late November. From Nov. 21 to Dec. 12, the Terps will play four preseason top-seven teams in No. 7 Baylor, No. 5 North Carolina State, No. 3 Stanford and No. 1 South Carolina.
Focused on completing the mission, the two stars will play a combined five players from the AmeriCup roster in that early portion of the schedule. Will the AmeriCup experience allow them to thrive against the best? Certainly, the experience should be a boost. The gold medals were important to Owusu and Miller, but what comes from them could help them guide a different team to their own types of hardware in the spring.