Despite Maryland women’s basketball holding a 20-10 lead heading into the second quarter against Loyola (Md) Sunday afternoon, the Terps still had room to improve.
Senior wing Blair Watson — one of the brightest defensive talents on the deep 2019-20 roster — was able to tip a pass during the Greyhounds’ possession to begin the quarter, corral the loose ball and assist Kaila Charles on a layup that opened a 30-7 second quarter run for the Terps.
So far this season, Watson is averaging 8.4 points on 45 percent shooting from the floor while adding 3.6 rebounds and 2.2 steals per game, and her teammates have started taking notice.
“Her confidence and her defense [stick out the most],” freshman Ashley Owusu said. “She’s one of our best defenders and every night she comes out and gives her best defensively.”
In a slow-starting game against Clemson in the Daytona Beach Invitational, Maryland was relying purely on its defense to create scoring chances.
Watson was able to nab a steal with 4:31 left in the first frame, took the ball to hoop and laid it in to give Maryland an 11-2 advantage. The Terps ended up winning that contest by a dominant 63-44 score.
“I say my defense is what really fuels my offense,” Watson said. “When I was [in Daytona] and I was getting steals and I was playing with my team I was like ‘All right, every time they kick me the ball I’m just gonna let it fly.’ That just built up my confidence and every time I got the ball I was letting it go and it was going in.”
This newfound freedom on the offensive end — which comes after a junior season where she battled back from an ACL tear — is as an added bonus to Watson’s defensive efforts. Watson is averaging over two steals per game and has had a significant drop in turnovers, leading to increases in her all-around and three-point field goal percentages so far as a senior.
Just how special Watson is on the defensive end, however, can’t always be explained with statistics as her hustle and pressure are not traceable, but are always present.
Watson’s work ethic and dedication on the defensive end were noticed by the coaching staff after she did not see the floor in the season-opener against Wagner, but did come off the bench and made smart hustle plays against South Carolina and James Madison.
In the next outing against Delaware, Frese opted to start Shakira Austin inside and Watson on the wing — alongside Owusu, Kaila Charles and Taylor Mikesell — in what she has since considered a “huge” change that has not been altered with since being put in place.
“With Blair, it’s her experience on defense,” Frese said. “She’s really allowing us to play the way that we need to. But I was telling Blair, she’s playing some of her most complete basketball.”
This complete basketball came at the right time for Maryland, as Mikesell fell into a bit of a slump over the Thanksgiving break. After scoring 12 points against Quinnipiac at home on November 24, Mikesell was held to just four points across both games in Daytona — including a scoreless outing in 31 minutes against Belmont.
“We always look at each other and we’re like ‘Just keep shooting’,” Watson said of her and Mikesell. “Especially as shooters, we’re like ‘Just keep shooting’ because we know it’s going to fall.”
Watson opened the Daytona Beach Invitational with a 19-point performance that included five three-pointers and a season-high five steals against Clemson, but perhaps had an even more impressive outing against Belmont.
In the Terps’ final game of the Invitational, Watson tallied a simple nine points, but did so by shooting 3-of-4 from the floor— including a perfect three for three mark from long-range.
“It feels good,” Watson said of having that near perfect performance. “I go throughout the games and you’re like ‘Ok, I hit a couple here and there,’ but to go perfect it’s like ‘Ok, that’s different,’ and I’m just going to keep shooting the ball and doing what I do.”
While the Terps were tripped up on the road by No. 13 NC State Thursday evening, Watson continued to excel by scoring 12 points — all of which came in the first half — off of four made three-point shots and had four steals.
As Maryland looks to right its ship before the bulk of Big Ten play comes around, look for the team to embody the effort and hustle of Watson — turning tough defense into easy offense.
“I think that’s the kind of identity we’re trying to adopt,” Mikesell said. “Trying to force as many turnovers as we can ... just being more aggressive off of those turnovers would be the biggest thing for us right now.”