By now, Maryland women’s coach Brenda Frese is used to watching Dee Liles‘ acrobatic play.
But every once in a while, the junior forward will sky for a rebound or a block in a way that makes her coach pause for a moment in awe.
“To have a player like her that’s so athletic and is above the rim, you don’t see it that often in our game,” Frese said. “The fun thing is she keeps improving every day that she steps out on the floor.”
That innate ability has enabled Liles to thrive in her first season with the eighth-ranked Terrapins (16-3, 4-1 ACC), who will look for their fourth straight win when they visit No. 19 Virginia (16-4, 3-2) on Friday.
Liles ranks fourth on the team at 11.3 points a game but does her best work on defense. She leads the Terps with 23 blocks, and her 9.2 rebounds a game rank third in the ACC. Liles frequently hits the floor - whether it’s diving for loose balls or taking charges - and wears padded shorts to ease the blows.
Liles continues to improve as she grows more accustomed to ACC play. She emerged from the bumping and bruising inside during Maryland’s win against North Carolina on Sunday with a season-high 15 rebounds. Friday’s game projects to be more of the same; the Cavaliers’ post duo of Aisha Mohammed and Lyndra Littles is as formidable as any in the conference.
“I’m not soft, so I’m not worried about how hard it is, but [the Tar Heels] definitely played us more physical than anybody else this year,” she said. “I heard that Virginia is even more physical, so we’ve just got to be ready to play hard.”
Maryland was always appealing to Liles — to the point that she made a childhood pact with one of her younger sisters to attend the university. The Suitland native signed with the Terps out of high school but spent the past two seasons at Gulf Coast (Fla.) Community College.
Liles’ junior college stint helped develop her offensive game. The Terps still take advantage of her athleticism any time they can with lob plays — particularly off inbounds passes — but Liles said she is much more comfortable in halfcourt sets than she was coming out of high school. In recent weeks, she has flashed an improved midrange jump shot.
“Dee’s making up for lost time. She’s putting the hard work in, and you’re seeing it pay off,” Frese said. “She’s got a tremendous IQ on the court, and she’s gotten really comfortable in our offense - knowing ways to be able to score and knowing when to crash in when a shot is taken to get a rebound and put it back up.”
Following Crystal Langhorne and Laura Harper is a tall task, but Liles said she didn’t feel any added pressure because of the success of her predecessors. At 6-foot-1, she is shorter than both 2008 WNBA first-round draft picks, but she makes up for it with her quickness and leaping ability.
“The pressure was just that everybody knows that Maryland has a dominant post presence,” Liles said. “Us being smaller this year, we just had to prove that we can follow in those same footsteps.”
Frese cites the rapport Liles has developed with freshman Lynetta Kizer, the team’s starting center, as one of the main reasons for the Terps’ improvement. Kizer’s strong low-post presence complements Liles’ athleticism.
“We work well together. I know what she can do, and she knows what I can do,” Liles said. “We just kind of feed off each other. I do one thing, she does the other and we just kind of put it together and try to be a beast.”