Before she reached the age of 17, Ieshia Small experienced significant heartache. The University of Maryland women's basketball player lost her father when she was 13 years old. Her mother, Michelle, died of a heart attack in March 2011 during Ieshia's sophomore year of high school.
"My mom was great," Small said. "She was the team mom for every team that I was on. She always had the Gatorade for us at halftime and the little fruit bags with oranges, bananas and grapes for every single player. She never missed a game and always supported me in whatever I wanted to do."
The sudden loss of their mother sent Small and her younger brother, Marvin, into foster care. But the Smalls, who lived in Miami, were eventually adopted by Kelvin and Kimberly Davis-Powell, a couple from Tallahassee, Fla., the latter of which coached Small on the Essence girls basketball travel team.
"At first it was tough," Small said. "When we got sent to foster care, I really didn't trust anybody. When [Kimberly Davis-Powell] asked the first time, I actually told her no. I thought that they were going to take me as Ieshia the basketball player and not as Ieshia, the 16-year old girl with a 14-year old brother.
"But during the year that I stayed in foster care, she showed me that I could trust her. She would drive down at least twice a month from Tallahassee, which is seven hours away from Miami. She showed me how much she cared for me and my brother. She loved us like we were her own kids, and that's what made me move on and make the decision to go with her."
Small sought the same welcoming environment for her college basketball career and seems to have finally found a comfortable place with the Maryland women's basketball program.
During her first season at Maryland, Small has been a key reserve for a Maryland team that made consecutive Final Four appearances before a second-round NCAA tournament loss ended the 2015-16 season. Through the first nine games of the 2016-17 campaign, the 6-foot redshirt junior guard was the Terps' sixth-leading scorer at 6.2 points per game and tied for second on the team with 3.33 assists per outing. Small's best performance came during a 106-42 win against Mount St. Mary's, when she totaled 14 points, five assists and four steals.
"She provides a lot of versatility," Maryland head coach Brenda Frese said. "Ieshia's a big, strong athletic guard who can play multiple positions. She's one of our better defenders, and she gives us a penetrating guard who can get other players open. She's been a tremendous spark for us."
Small didn't take the easy road to get to this point. Following her selection as the 2013 Florida Gatorade Player of the Year, Small was sought after by many powerful programs. Her final list included South Carolina and Rutgers, but Small chose to head west and attend Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
Before she even played a game with the Bears, Small was voted Big 12 Preseason Freshman of the Year. But she decided to end her Baylor stay after two seasons. Small was contacted by several prominent schools before choosing Maryland for the next stage of her college career.
"I struggled during my sophomore year, and I decided to go someplace where I was needed and wanted," Small said. "Brenda called, I came here for a visit, and I liked it more than I thought I would."
Small's exuberance for the game never waned during the 2015-16 campaign. During the year she had to sit out after transferring, Small watched as her new teammates compiled a 31-4 record and won a second consecutive Big Ten championship.
"Last year, I learned a lot about myself that I didn't know," Small said. "I got to see things from a different perspective. I had to help everyone else out before I helped myself. I was able to talk to Shatori [Walker-Kimbrough] and to the seniors that have left, like Malina [Howard] and [Brene Moseley]. I was able to tell the players what the coaches were seeing, things that they weren't seeing on the floor."
Small had never spent time on the bench during her prep career. She earned the Miami-Dade Player of the Year honor in consecutive seasons after leading Dr. Micheal Krop High School to a Class 6A state semifinal appearance during the 2010-11 campaign and an appearance in the Class 8A state championship game the following year.
Before her senior year of high school, Small was adopted by the Powell family and moved from Miami to Tallahassee. Small spent her senior year at Florida State University High School, where she was coached by her adopted mother and led the Seminoles to a 22-7 record. After averaging 25.0 points, 9.0 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 5.0 steals per game during her senior season, Small was named a McDonald's All-American.
But the statewide and national recognition Small received during her high school career didn't translate to her experience at Baylor. She started just three games in two seasons, averaging 2.9 points and 1.4 rebounds while shooting 33 percent from the field. It was time for a new start.
During the offseason following Small's sophomore campaign at Baylor, the scene was changing at Maryland. Lexie Brown, the point guard for the Terps' consecutive Final Four teams, was transferring to Duke, so the timing and opportunity were right for Small.
"When we lost Lexie, we had a huge hole [in the backcourt]," Frese said. "When Ieshia came to us from Baylor, she really needed to change some of her nutrition and get re-committed. She spent all of last year training and working behind the scenes with the coaching staff and with the scout team. She got in the weight room three times a week and changed her physique. Ieshia did a phenomenal job of preparing herself for this season."
The road to a key role with the Terps required some adjustment, but Small feels comfortable with the transition from scout team to game action.
"I was still kind of robotic at first, but I'm learning each game," Small said. "Going forward, I think I will loosen up even more."
Issue 228: December 2016