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Faith Masonius is a leader for Maryland. And now she’s starting to play like it.

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PALO ALTO, Calif. — From a distance, it seems as if Faith Masonius is always smiling. The fifth-year graduate senior has been a leader for the Maryland women’s basketball team and a de facto coach on the floor for years, and positivity practically oozes from her pores.

That’s just who Masonius is, and people tend to gravitate toward her. But behind the scenes this season and at home during the quiet moments, those smiles sometimes faded away.

“It’s hard to always just do things with a smile,” Masonius said with a sigh. “There are some days where I’m like: ‘Okay, I’ve been doing this for five years. I feel like my life is just on repeat.’ Mentally, it is difficult sometimes.”

Maryland (19-13), a No. 10 seed, will open its 13th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance against No. 7 seed Iowa State in the first round Friday, and Masonius played a huge role in making that happen. The Terrapins were on the tournament bubble before this month’s Big Ten tournament, where Masonius put together her best game of the season. In an upset over top-seeded Ohio State in the quarterfinals, she posted season highs in points (15) and rebounds (11) for her first double-double of the season to go with four assists.

Her teammate and roommate Shyanne Sellers told her to be a “motherf—-r” on the glass, and Masonius took that to heart. Five offensive rebounds gave Maryland extra opportunities against a team that has national championship aspirations, and the win helped move the Terps safely into the NCAA tournament field.

That production, however, was absent earlier in the season. This was supposed to be the season for Masonius to truly shine. She entered the campaign as a returning starter on a team that lost two players to the first round of the WNBA draft and its starting point guard. But both she and the team struggled early, and Masonius was sent to the bench after four games. She acknowledged her confidence took a hit, and that affected her play. In her first three games after the move to the bench, Masonius totaled eight points, nine rebounds and four assists. That was far from the production she expected and far from what the team needed.

“I really had to tell her, like, she can’t care about what everyone else is saying or what people may think,” Sellers said. “That was the biggest thing. … She’s been here for so long, and we all know how valuable she is. No one is going to be mad if she takes a bad shot because no one cares because it’s Faith. She cleans up a lot of our messes.

“She never wants anyone to see her down.”

Masonius is one of those players who is a leader even if she is not necessarily the best player on the floor. She does all the little things, essentially becoming a defensive coordinator on the court. Her voice can be heard directing teammates where they need to be, reminding them of what they need to do.

So when she was sent to the bench and her production dipped, she couldn’t outwardly show frustration, disappointment and self-doubt. But it was there, under the surface.

“When you’re in it, sometimes maybe there’s a pity party that you can have for a little bit, but then [you have] to get through it,” said Masonius’s mother, Ellen. “These are her inner challenges.”

Associate head coach Karen Blair said Masonius simply earned her way back into the starting lineup. The team was coming off a four-game skid when she was brought back to the staring five, and the Terrapins are 7-3 since. She followed the Ohio State game with 14 points, nine rebounds and five assists in a Big Ten semifinal loss to Nebraska and enters Friday’s NCAA game riding her best two-game stretch of the season.

“That was just Faith being Faith,” Blair said. “The confidence that Faith went out there with. The presence that she had on both ends of the floor. Commanding our team and just getting every loose ball, getting every rebound. That’s the epitome of who Faith is. The things that I talk to Faith about is reminding her all the things that she does well. Faith is very critical of herself, like most good players are.”

Those conversations were part of the process of rebuilding Masonius’s confidence. She worried too much about scoring. She dwelled on her shot selection for too long. She is a gifted passer who can slip a behind-the-back pass through traffic, but sometimes she tried to do too much.

Blair wanted her to simplify her game. Maryland has asked Masonius to do many things throughout her career, and she has played all five positions despite her 6-foot-1 frame. One game she is tasked with banging against bigger players in the paint. Another finds her bringing the ball up and initiating the offense. Her versatility can be a blessing and a curse. She has never averaged more than 6.9 points, which she did last season. She is averaging 6.4 points, 3.9 rebounds and a career-high 2.6 assists this season.

“She’s gotten to the point where a lot of defenses maybe aren’t respecting her and aren’t guarding her,” Blair said. “But as a coaching staff we’re like: ‘You have to hit those respect shots. You’re going to have to be confident, be able to knock it down and take them.’ In the Big Ten [tournament], I’m like, ‘Okay, here’s Faith.’ This is the Faith that we know and love. You can see her confidence brewing.”

Masonius knows the end of her college career is near. She has been to two Sweet 16s and the Elite Eight, and this will be her final NCAA tournament. This season was a struggle for Maryland, its worst since it joined the Big Ten a decade ago. But there was the win over the Buckeyes. And they played Caitlin Clark and Iowa close last month. There’s a feeling within the team that they can play with anyone, especially after the conference tournament.

Along the way, Masonius continued to grow both on and off the court. She had to learn to separate basketball frustrations from the rest of her life. She’s a social media star, putting together fashion and hair tutorials — which often feature her styling Sellers’s hair. Grocery shopping has become an oasis, and she claims to make a mean chicken cutlet.

A sense of urgency has also set in during this final stretch. She said it feels as if her five years have flown by, and she wants to go out on a high note.

“It is hard to stay positive sometimes when things aren’t going your way or you’re not having the success that you want,” Masonius said. “For me, it’s definitely important to stay levelheaded, especially when it comes to basketball, because being a leader on the team, people do look at me. So if I’m down, people are like: ‘Oh, no, even Faith’s down. This is not good.’ … I try to be that calming presence when things are in chaos.

“[This] wasn’t my greatest season, but [I’m] trying to go out with a bang. … It’s March. If there’s any time to do it, it’s now.”

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