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Why 5-star Maryland freshman Kiah Gillespie left Connecticut to join the Terps

Maryland's rookie forward had dozens of offers before settling on Brenda Frese's program.

Maryland women's basketball forward Kiah Gillespie at the team's media day on Oct. 20.
Maryland women's basketball forward Kiah Gillespie at the team's media day on Oct. 20.
Brian Kapur

Kiah Gillespie doesn't think it's such a big deal. Her teammates and coach aren't moved by it, and maybe we shouldn't be, either.

But it's a bit jarring that Gillespie, a five-star freshman forward, is playing for the Maryland women's basketball team in the first place. It's surprising because of where Gillespie is from. She comes from Meriden, Conn., a 53-minute drive from that state's flagship university and the most dominant college basketball program ever - Geno Auriemma's Huskies.

Gillespie, rated by ESPN's HoopGurlz as the No. 27 player in this year's class, is so good that it feels counterintuitive she's not at UConn. Connecticut isn't rich with high school talent, and Gillespie is the highest-rated player to come of the state in years. She's the kind of five-star, in-state prospect the sport's best team would be reasonably expected to get. But the McDonald's All-American decided to leave home and play for Maryland coach Brenda Frese.

"A lot of people ask me about why I decided to come to Maryland, and I think they have something different that a lot of colleges don't have. They have an intense coach who likes to win. Of course, UConn, that's a great program, of course," she said. "But I think that going against what people expect you to do is kind of really different."

"I think that UConn is good," she added. "They'll always be good. But sometimes, it's something different for different people."

Auriemma's Huskies reached out to Gillespie and invited her to team practices. But UConn hadn't offered Gillespie a scholarship at the time she committed to Maryland, in August 2014. She had 30 Division I offers, the local Record-Journal reported at the time of her commitment.

"I chose Maryland because it's a great coaching staff and a really good program that's built on tradition," Gillespie said at the team's media day Tuesday. "They have great support, a great educational program, and I feel that they have a lot of tools that's going to help me be successful later on in my life."

That Maryland grabbed an elite recruit from UConn's backyard is surprising, but not that the Terps have done well on the trail in general. The team has made two Final Fours in a row and broke into ESPN's top-20 class rankings this year at No. 11, despite only having two prospects - Gillespie and fellow five-star forward Brianna Fraser.

"That's what so neat about Maryland," senior center Malina Howard said. "We're really competitive in recruiting."

Frese has already assembled a six-woman recruiting class for next year, including a ridiculous five separate five-star talents.

If any of Gillespie's teammates were surprised Maryland landed her, they did a good job hiding it.

"Kiah's great, so I'm not surprised that Coach B recruited her," sophomore forward Aja Ellison said. "We want the best here, both on and off the court, and Kiah fulfills both of those requirements. I'm glad she's here."

Maryland loses high-scoring guards Lexie Brown and Lauren Mincy from last year's team, and Frese acknowledged that leaves the Terps "thinner than we'd like" in the backcourt this year, despite having a couple of accomplished returners in Chloe Pavlech, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Brene Moseley. But freshmen Gillespie and Fraser, along with returners Ellison and Brionna Jones, should give Maryand a devastating frontcourt.

Every women's program has a certain UConn problem to get around. Such is life when a team makes eight-straight Final Fours, including one last year in which the Huskies shellacked and eliminated Maryland, 81-58. But Gillespie thinks this Maryland team might be able to get over the Husky hump. It's what every program wants.

"I think everybody wants to beat UConn, of course," she said. "I think it is important that people come out and try to challenge them, because they've been on top for a very, very long time."