Short-handed Maryland losing grip on elite status in Big Ten

FILE - In this Nov. 19, 2017, file photo, Maryland's Kaila Charles, left, Brianna Fraser, center, and Blair Watson, right, are shown during the second half an NCAA women's college basketball game against UConn, in Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File)

COLLEGE PARK, Md. (AP) The three-time defending Big Ten women’s basketball champions are deep in recovery mode – again.

An annual fixture in the Top 10, Maryland climbed to No. 11 this week despite fielding a roster decimated by graduation and the offseason transfer of four players, including standout guard Destiny Slocum.

Coach Brenda Frese was doing an impressive job with a youthful group before sophomore Blair Watson, the second-leading scorer on the squad, tore her right ACL in practice on Wednesday.

The Terrapins dressed only nine players Thursday night, used just seven of them and committed 24 turnovers in an ugly 82-68 loss at home to unranked Michigan State, which previously was 0-10 against Maryland.

Though Frese won a national championship at Maryland in 2006 and has reached the NCAA Tournament in 13 of the last 14 years, she is no stranger to stress.

”Perspective is important,” Frese said. ”I’ve been told by the doctors that my son has cancer. Yeah, these are tough situations for me as a competitor and as a coach, but at the end of the day it’s just a game.”

Frese’s son, Tyler Thomas, had childhood leukemia diagnosed in 2010 when he was 2 and immediately began receiving treatment. Late in 2013, he received his final round of chemotherapy and since has been cancer-free.

Thus, Frese won’t even shrug her shoulders in the midst of a season in which Maryland (15-3, 4-1) is struggling to maintain its reputation as the class of the Big Ten.

”One day, one practice at a time,” she said. ”Like you see with Blair, at any point things can change for anybody. For us, it’s just about getting better. Getting better in practice, learning from our mistakes so we don’t repeat them.”

That’s been the directive since late October, following a whirlwind offseason in which stars Shatori Kimbrough-Walker and Brionna Jones left for the NBA and Slocum, claiming to be homesick, transferred to Oregon State.

Using a roster with only two seniors, Frese successfully shuffled players on and off the floor. Seven players are averaging in double figures, led by sophomore guard Kaila Charles (17 points), Watson (13.8) and backup guard Iesha Small (11.8).

Florida transfer Eleanna Christinaki got her first start Thursday night and is expected to play a much larger role now that Watson is on crutches.

”We need to keep working, especially now that we lost Blair,” Christinaki said. ”I want this team to be Maryland and play Maryland basketball. We’ll figure it out.”

Frese is counting on it. Before Watson went out, the Terps reeled off 13 straight wins – including an 80-64 rout of No. 18 Iowa – following a defeat against top-ranked Connecticut on Nov. 19.

”This group has been resilient. They never felt sorry for themselves,” Frese said. ”There’s just a smaller margin for error we’ve got to be able to come to the table with.”

Problem is, the roster contains a freshman and four sophomores.

”There’s not a lot of experience, so you’re asking players to step up and take roles of responsibility that they’ve never been asked to perform and do,” Frese acknowledged. ”For us, that’s a whole element that people don’t understand. That takes time.”

The Terrapins intend to get better each week leading up to the Big Ten Tournament.

”That’s the plan,” Frese said. ”That’s how Maryland basketball has always been, trying to peak for March.”