The Maryland women's basketball team's starting lineup hasn't changed since the first game of the season. The lone adjustment came in Maryland's contest against Iowa on Jan. 14, when guard Ieshia Small started in place of guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough.
Coach Brenda Frese explained the move as "wanting to be able to reward" Small for consistent and improving play, an important part of building the team's depth.
Small's opportunity didn't seem to motivate the Terps' reserves, though. With three games left in the regular season, Frese is still searching for consistent play from the bench.
The veteran coach hopes her bench improves when No. 2 Maryland (25-1, 13-0 Big Ten) plays Wisconsin (6-19, 1-11) on Wednesday.
"We recognize the fact of how much stronger our team is when we have our depth clicking on all cylinders," Frese said. "And when it's not, it taxes us as a team. It takes time for people to fully understand the role."
Knowing this year's team was young — there are six freshman and Small, a transfer who was ineligible last season — Frese filled the early part of this year's schedule with weak nonconference opponents to ease the newcomers into the college game.
For the first month of the season, Walker-Kimbrough, center Brionna Jones and the rest of the starters opened up wide leads, so they rarely played in the fourth quarter.
Their performances allowed the reserves to play valuable minutes late in games. For the most part, the reserves' play pleased Frese.
"The freshmen came in strong," sophomore Brianna Fraser said. "They knew what they wanted to do."
But as Maryland entered conference play and the competition grew tougher, issues emerged. In an 80-71 win over Rutgers on Jan. 22, for example, an 18-point Terps lead with fewer than two minutes left shrank to as small as eight when Frese emptied her bench.
Frese has called stretches like that one "uncharacteristic," but the disappointments seem to have become more regular as the season has progressed.
"It's a hard role," Frese said. "You have to come in ready to contribute to this team, and stay active in the game so when your number's called, you're ready."
The bench fell short of that goal Thursday against Illinois. About halfway through the first quarter, Frese thought her starters looked fatigued, so she made substitutions.
Less than a minute later, though, Frese rotated the regulars back into the game. By the end of the first half, all five starters had logged at least 15 minutes.
When the reserves slip up, though, Fraser said Frese allows them to make up for their mistakes.
Freshman forward Stephanie Jones, who comes off the bench, said Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Brionna Jones, the team's only seniors, also help the team remain positive.
"They're great with telling us where we need to be, what we need to do, and keeping up our energy and intensity," Jones said. "Watching our starting five, they bring so much energy."
Because of the bench's inconsistent performance, the Terps haven't secured a consistent rotation of reserves. The solution to that, the team said, is the same as the solution to the bench's up-and-down play.
"Work ethic. Keep pushing and keep pushing and keep pushing," Fraser said. "If you show that every day in practice, eventually you're going to play."