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For Maryland women’s basketball, a down year is still pretty successful

The Terps couldn’t overcome all the offseason departures, but they didn’t fall far in 2017-18.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Maryland vs Nebraska Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

This was always going to be a relative down year for Maryland women’s basketball. The Terps lost two superstars to graduation. They lost four more players via transfer, including the would-be face of this season’s team. They entered nearly every game with just nine available players.

The results generally matched up with those lowered expectations. Maryland didn’t win the Big Ten regular season or tournament title for the first time since joining the league in 2014. It didn’t host any NCAA Tournament games for the first time since missing the dance in 2010. The Terps’ run ended Sunday with a 14-point road loss to NC State, one round short of last season’s finish.

Of course, if a program’s down year features 26 wins, a top-two finish in a Power 5 conference and a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament, then something is going right. And Maryland accomplished some things this season that it failed to in recent years with more talented rosters. But the lack of firepower did catch up to the Terps.

This Maryland team didn’t have Brionna Jones, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough or Destiny Slocum. More often than not, the Terps needed a full team effort to earn wins the stars would have carried them to in the past. When several players were clicking at once, this was still a dangerous group, as Ohio State learned when Maryland thumped the Buckeyes by 30 in January. But the Terps were also much more prone to going cold and giving up big runs.

That’s how the season ended Sunday. Maryland was one point down halfway through the third quarter, but entered the fourth trailing by 16, its eulogy all but written. The Terps watched Kiara Leslie, who left them for NC State as a grad transfer in the summer, drop a game-high 21 points and 11 rebounds. It was easy to wonder how many times having her as a weapon would have made a difference.

Seemingly all of Maryland’s roster was a difference-maker at one point or another this season. Kaila Charles was the most consistent, leading the Terps with 17.9 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, but her occasional off nights were almost fatal, especially after Maryland lost second-leading scorer Blair Watson with a torn ACL in early January. Nobody else made the kind of individual leap needed to elevate this team’s ceiling to where it was last year, although five other Terps averaged at least 9.4 points per game.

The good news is that almost the entire group is slated to return, save for seniors Kristen Confroy and Ieshia Small. After Maryland lost its top three scorers from 2016-17, it will bring back 76 percent of its points from this year. And that’s only part of why fans were looking forward to 2018-19 before this season even wrapped up.

The incoming recruiting class is headlined by 6’5 forward Shakira Austin, who at No. 3 in ESPN’s player rankings is the most prized prospect Brenda Frese has ever landed. Sharpshooter Taylor Mikesell will bolster the backcourt, while versatile center Olivia Owens should do the same for the front line. They’ll join a group led by Charles and potentially featuring full seasons from both Watson and Eleanna Christinaki. Point guard Channise Lewis will be in her second season and far more familiar with the college game.

Brenda Frese knew this season wouldn’t be easy, but she kept her team relevant all winter long. Even though Maryland didn’t make it out of the NCAA Tournament’s first weekend, the Terps have positioned themselves to be as loaded as ever in the near future.