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Shorthanded No. 8 Maryland women’s basketball must put Bahamas trip in rearview mirror

The Terps went 0-2 over Thanksgiving without three important players.

Courtesy of Maryland Athletics

The film can’t just be chucked away. In the record books and on the schedule, the games happened.

Maryland women’s basketball suffered a 78-60 loss to then-No. 5 NC State on Thanksgiving. Two days later, the Terps were run out of the gym by reigning national champions and then-No. 7 Stanford, 86-68.

“We don’t just throw away the tape when you can learn the championship habits of Stanford,” Maryland head coach Brenda Frese said.

What a glance at the results does not show is that the Terps were missing three vital players in parts two and three of their four-game nonconference gauntlet. Graduate student guard Katie Benzan — the nation’s leading three-point shooter from a season ago — has been out since Maryland’s Nov. 21 game against Baylor with an illness and did not make the trip to the Bahamas. Junior guard/forward Faith Masonius — a key defensive piece off the bench for the Terps — has not played since Nov. 12 against Villanova with an illness and also did not travel with the team.

“I think it impacted us a lot,” junior guard Ashley Owusu said of Benzan’s absence. “...Katie is a great, great shooter and she spaces the floor out. I think we were missing that piece, but also just what I said earlier, just effort. I think we just got to play harder and just be able to compete.”

Perhaps the most important missing piece for Maryland is All-Big Ten junior guard Diamond Miller. Miller and Owusu complement each other to make one of the nation’s most dynamic backcourts. However, Miller has been limited all season and considered day-to-day with a knee injury, only making appearances against UNC Wilmington and Baylor.

“Ashley’s Batman without Robin right now when Diamond Miller’s not on the floor,” Frese said. “But we don’t know when she’ll be back.”

Owusu has had to carry the load in the backcourt, and she has excelled. In eight games, she has averaged 17.9 points and 4.3 assists per contest. She was superb in Maryland’s home victory over Baylor and has earned help from freshman guard Shyanne Sellers. Sellers, ESPN’s No. 22 recruit in the Class of 2021, has looked mature beyond her years, averaging 11 points per game. But, Sellers had to play 40 minutes against both Baylor and Stanford, a task that is difficult for anyone, let alone someone still adjusting to the college game.

“Shyanne Sellers playing 40 minutes as a freshman,” Frese said. “I mean, you know, Diamond’s back in the fold, you’re not having to play a freshman with a top-five team that many minutes...I think it’s asking a lot right now early with your freshmen, with your sophomores, without your vets to have that kind of consistency. But, this is where we’re at. This is, most kids die to play 40 minutes, so we’re gaining a lot of experience even though it’s hurtful and it’ll prepare us for the future.”

Frese scheduled these games to prepare her team for March. The motto since the beginning of the season has been to “complete the mission,” and playing games against championship-level teams will only help Maryland get to that level. What Frese did not know, though, is the adversity Maryland would face.

Beating Baylor without Benzan and Masonius and playing with a limited Miller at home is impressive in its own right. Going to another country and defeating the ACC favorites and the national champions from less than eight months ago with a seven-player rotation — “the sensational seven” as sophomore forward/guard Angel Reese crowned them — would be a gargantuan job.

Sophomore guard Taisiya Kozlova, a player that Frese would like to only play spot minutes, was forced into playing 24.5 minutes per game in the Bahamas. Freshman forward Emma Chardon, a raw big from Switzerland that showed flashes in Maryland’s exhibition games, played nearly 10 minutes against Stanford because of the team’s issues with foul trouble. While the situation is not to the fault of anybody, no one is sympathetic for the Terps as they fight through their issues.

“You’re not making excuses for yourself,” Frese said postgame after the loss to NC State. “It’s the situation we’re in and no one’s gonna feel sorry for us, we just got to find a way.”

A positive from this rough stretch for Maryland is the play of Reese. Though she had an off night against Stanford, scoring a season-low six points on 2-for-13 shooting from the field and fouling out of the game, she has proven she has taken the next step.

Reese leads the Terps in scoring at 18 points per game and is also averaging a double-double with 10.4 rebounds per game. She leads Maryland with 2.6 steals per game, stepping up her game on the defensive end. The most impressive of anything is that she played to the level of, and outplayed at times, First Team All-Americans in Baylor’s NaLyssa Smith and NC State’s Elissa Cunane.

Against Baylor, despite playing only 19 minutes because of foul trouble, Reese recorded 17 points and nine rebounds. She was a team-high plus-4 on the day, limiting Smith and Baylor when she was on the floor. In the Bahamas, Reese was one of the only bright spots against Cunane and the Wolfpack. She scored 24 points on an efficient 9-for-14 shooting performance and grabbed nine boards. Cunane and head coach Wes Moore praised Reese after the game, saying how tough she made it on them despite the blowout.

“She’s just a tough and aggressive player,” Cunane said of Reese. “She wants to get to the boards, she finishes well. She gets [offensive] boards, which was a big focus for us to just not let her get a second shot, which we ended up doing a couple times and she capitalized on it, so she’s just a force down low. So it’s a really good matchup.”

The recipe for success for Maryland is there. Benzan and Masonius are expected to return from their illnesses soon, which will be a much-needed boost to Maryland’s depth. Miller’s lingering knee issue is more of a question mark, but as long as she is still considered day-to-day, the Terps have to expect her back before it is too late.

With Owusu and Reese, the Terps have two of the most talented players the country has to offer. Both are gamers and put Maryland on an elite level. Redshirt junior forward Mimi Collins, who is averaging 12.8 points per game but had a tough run in the Bahamas, joins Reese and graduate student forward/guard Chloe Bibby to make an imposing frontcourt. Collins pinned the trio the “Three Musketeers,” and they certainly are a tough matchup for any opposition. Bibby is only shooting 38.6% from the field and 30.6% from three, but the Terps are asking her to take on a bigger perimeter role offensively without Benzan, something she would not be doing with a healthy squad.

The Terps fell to No. 8 in the latest AP Poll, but clearly, the voters know that the product in the Bahamas does not represent a normal Maryland team. Maryland sticks around in the top-10, but Frese knows her squad is better than they are slated now and will be at the championship level they expect to be at eventually. Realistically, November AP rankings will not be the end all be all.

“We’ve got to get ourselves back and regroup, get everyone back, get everyone healthy and be able to put the team together that we have,” Frese said. “Liked our second half, especially our fourth quarter [against Stanford], but not really into moral victories within this tournament. We’re trying to play at a higher level than just winning a half or a quarter.”

As long as everyone is back, Maryland will be just fine.