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The Maryland Women’s basketball team is on a mission.  After six straight trips to the Sweet Sixteen that included a pair of Final Four berths, the Terps are looking to shake off consecutive first-weekend NCAA Tournament exits.  Brenda Frese’s bunch gritted its way to last winter’s Big Ten Regular Season title before flaming out in March, and all five starters return to be joined by a top-five recruiting class. The result?  A Preseason No. 4 ranking for the Big Ten favorites. “Big thing I’ll say about this team is that they’re a team of competitors,” Frese said. “Their practices in between the summer and going into the fall have been some of the most competitive practices I’ve seen in a while.”

The Terps will be led once again by Kaila Charles.  The senior has started all 103 games in her career, and has led the team in scoring the last two seasons.  “The last couple years-as she goes, we go,” Frese said. “Nothing really changes at the top. She’ll do a great job leading this talented and really young team.”  The Preseason First Team All-American  has played bigger than her 6-foot-1 frame since coming to campus, and hopes to shore up the one area where she hasn’t shined:  three point-shooting.  She’s made 7 of 25 in her career (and was just 1 for 14 last year), but vows this season will be different.  “I’ve been working on it all summer; I’ve been working on it all three years.” Charles said. “I just think it’s my mentality. I just need to shoot it. I don’t need to think ‘is it gonna go in?'”

If Charles isn’t able to improve her perimeter play, fear not.  Because sophomore sharpshooter Taylor Mikesell is back after claiming Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors last winter when she made 41% of her threes.  As the case with most who come through Brenda Frese’s program, Mikesell has become more than just an offensive force.  “She already has made a huge jump on the defensive end.  That was areas last year that would pull her off the floor,” Frese said. “This year is actually going to be easier for her-I anticipate she won’t see the box-and-one and the face-guards. She’s gonna have a lot more freedom to just shoot the ball.”

Mikesell isn’t the only sophomore who’s expected to make a pronounced leap from first-year supporting player to primary contributor.  Six-foot-five center Shakira Austin came off the bench in the early season before eventually becoming a starter as a freshman, eventually earning Honorable Mention and All-Defensive Big Ten honors.  While her skills in the post were obvious (she averaged 9.5 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game), Austin worked hard at improving her offensive skills (she hit 43% of her shots last year) in the offseason.  “I just feel like I should be able to dominate this year in the post,” Austin said. “Last year I felt I lost a lot of confidence–I wasn’t able to go up strong.”  Coach Brenda Frese has noticed a marked difference. “She is stronger, she can finish through contact,” Frese said. “She is making plays in the low post that we were hoping is where she was going to get to.”

That trio, in addition to defensive dynamo Blair Watson and point guard Channise Lewis, will be bolstered by a recruiting class ranked third in the nation by prospectsnation.com and hoopgurlz on espnW. “I think the thing you’ll see with our team first and foremost is our size. We have tremendous length both on the perimeter, point guard positions, wings, inside,” Frese said. “The talent level has really increased. We have depth at every single position.”  Even with the loss of five-star guard Zoe Young to a torn ACL for the season, the new class has made an impression. “They’re incredible-they want to work and they want to win,” Taylor Mikesell said. “So it’s just great to have them. We have four really good freshmen here.”

While the future is on campus, the team got a chance to see the past as well as their potential futures earlier this fall when the Washington Mystics won the WNBA championship.  While the Mystics boasted three Maryland graduates plus two players who transferred out of the Terps program, the Connecticut Sun had two more former Terps on its roster. “Our current players currently have those dreams that now our alums are living out,” Frese said. “It’s a tremendous example for them:  if you work hard, if you come in the gym, you’re here early, you stay late-these are the things that you can possibly have if that pro career is something a goal of yours.”

The season offers up the usual tests, with one early indicator of how far this team has come and how much further they have to go.  Sunday, November 10 brings No. 8 South Carolina to Xfinity Center.  Their other big pre-conference test will be at No. 14 NC State in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. League play starts December 28 against No. 25 Michigan.  But at Maryland once again, it’s March that matters.