During the first 28 minutes of its 94-86 defeat to No. 4 South Carolina on Monday, the doubts that have surrounded the Maryland women's basketball team over the past eight months surfaced:
The graduations of All-Big Ten duo Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Brionna Jones would create a leadership vacuum.
The transfers of reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year Destiny Slocum and former top-60 recruits Kiara Leslie, Jenna Staiti and Kiah Gillespie would gut the future of the program.
Coach Brenda Frese would lose her touch after consecutive premature NCAA tournament exits.
South Carolina took a 71-45 lead late in the third quarter, seemingly proving those concerns right. But Maryland responded with a 39-16 run against the defending national champions to cut the deficit to three points — showing its continued ability to compete with top programs.
While the Terps don't have the recognizable star power of past seasons, they'll be fine under the guidance of Frese, who has taken the team to seven straight NCAA tournaments and won about 78 percent of her games at the helm.
Frese never changed her sideline demeanor while the game spiraled out of control. Even as the Terps mounted their comeback, she offered occasional clapping and words of encouragement.
Maryland followed her calm lead by not pushing the ball out of control or making foolish gambles on defense, instead dialing up disciplined full-court pressure and forcing the Gamecocks into uncharacteristic mistakes.
By the end, South Carolina looked like the team with only two returning starters, as it rushed shots and committed careless ball-handling errors.
"We kind of just got tired," said South Carolina forward A'ja Wilson, who leads her team in scoring. "Our minds were just everywhere. When you get tired, you lose everything and you stop listening and aren't very disciplined."
The Terps trusted sophomore guard Kaila Charles to drive the comeback. Charles averaged fewer than 10 points per game last season, but she's now the go-to offensive option.
Charles stole the spotlight down the stretch on a night Wilson — the favorite for National Player of the Year — poured in a career-high 32 points for South Carolina. Charles scored 19 points in the fourth quarter, including 10 free throws and a clutch 3-pointer. Wilson managed just six in the final period.
Frese compared Charles' ability to charge into the teeth of an opposing defense to former Maryland forward Alyssa Thomas, the No. 4 pick in the 2014 WNBA Draft who scored a career-high 14.8 points per game this past season for the Connecticut Sun.
"[Charles] kind of just kept going," Wilson added. "It's tough because you never know whether to guard her outside or down low. She kept bringing it to us and making us foul. That's a good player."
Her tenacity spread to teammates. A possession after Charles drew two free throws, guard Channise Lewis caught South Carolina out of position on the perimeter, capitalizing on an open path to the basket by finishing with her right hand at the basket to pull the Terps within three.
So, while South Carolina took control in the final two minutes, the Terps left Xfinity Center with a positive takeaway.
"You saw a true picture of our team in the fourth quarter," Frese said. "Obviously disappointed with the outcome, but excited by the fight in this young team."
We'll learn more when Maryland visits No. 1 Connecticut on Sunday. But with few other daunting nonconference matchups and a Big Ten slate that features just two ranked teams, the squad has time to work out the kinks before reaching the postseason.
When the NCAA tournament arrives and the Terps are asked to go toe-to-toe with another national powerhouse, there's reason to believe they can overcome their offseason losses by leaning on Frese, Charles and the blueprint they created Monday night.