Taylor Mikesell has dreamed of playing with USA across her chest ever since she was a little girl. And as talented as the Terrapin rising sophomore is, it hasn't been as easy as one might imagine.
Mikesell's solid showing for the U.S. at the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru in mid-August portends great things for her future in the red, white and blue uniform and for her return this fall to another Maryland team with lofty goals.
The Pan Am Games were Mikesell's first taste of international hoops since 2016, when she won a bronze medal with the U.S. at the FIBA U-17 World Cup. The year prior, she tried out for USA Basketball's U-16 squad but didn't make the team.
"As I started getting familiar with USA Basketball, I always wanted to be a part of those teams," Mikesell said. "I was kind of unlucky with how my birthday fell. The last two years I wasn't eligible for the U-18 or U-19 team. So I didn't think it was going to be possible for me to play until, if it happens, the Olympics."
But Mikesell, who celebrates her 20th birthday in September, was eligible to try out for the Pan Am Games team this summer. USA Basketball officials approached her in Las Vegas in April when she was there for USA Basketball's 3-on-3 tournament.
"The way my birthday fell I was a month too old for the under-19 team [this year]," she said. "The U-18 team [last year], I was a month too old, too."
So that explains why Mikesell was the youngest player of the 12-member Pan Am team. Tryouts were held in May in Colorado Springs, Colo. The 5-foot-9 guard went through five days of two practices a day and games at night with 36 other players to show her wares.
Mikesell never has a problem lining up against other great players and doing her thing; she relishes the opportunities. It's the downtime that sometimes gets to her and has led to a well-documented ritual of making 1,000 shots on off days and 500 on game days.
"The night before they announced the team the next morning, that night was a little stressful," she said. "But you can't do anything but hope for the best."
That following morning, all the candidates were sitting in the bleachers as the names of those who had made the team were called.
"They go alphabetically so you're sitting there trying to figure out your last name, their last name and how far they've gone in the alphabet," she said. "When you hear a lot of B [names] and Cs, you wonder if there are even any spots left."
Mikesell's name was called, and the USA team went on to capture silver at the Pan Am Games, falling to a veteran Brazil team in the gold-medal game, 79-73. The United States is the only country that sends a team exclusively of college kids to this competition. Other countries essentially send professionals, players as old as 30, and with loads of international experience.
Still, the USA went 4-1 at the tournament, and continued laying a foundation for these players to be part of future Olympics -- Mikesell's ultimate dream, too. This was her second go-round internationally after playing for the 2016 U-17 squad that won the bronze in Zaragoza, Spain.
She showed what she can do this time in the United States' second Pan Am game, a 103-55 win against the Virgin Islands during which she came off the bench to lead the U.S. with 16 points, going 6-of-13 from the field and hitting 4-of-8 3-point attempts in 18 minutes.
"That was a fun game," she laughed. "It was a great team win. Everyone was up on the bench cheering. It was fun being out there."
The Massillion, Ohio, native averaged 5.0 points per game and played in all five contests, though sparingly in a couple. She played three minutes in the finale against Brazil, hitting a 3-pointer in a nip-and-tuck contest. The U.S. led by two at the end of the first quarter, trailed by one at the half and was down 55-53 heading to the fourth quarter.
Miami (Fla.) forward Beatrice Mompremier and Texas A&M guard Chennedy Carter led Team USA against Brazil with 16 points each and were stalwarts throughout the five-game tournament. They also led the team with 14 apiece during a 62-59 semifinal win against Puerto Rico, the eventual bronze-medal winner.
"Building relationships with your teammates is a big thing," Mikesell said. "You play with a lot of them [during the college season] and you don't get to interact with them, especially the Big Ten kids. When you see them it's all scouting report stuff and you don't get to talk to them so that was cool, hanging out with all them and getting to know them."
The team had a little Big Ten flavor with Mikesell, Iowa's Kathleen Doyle and Northwestern's Lindsey Pulliam. Suzy Merchant, coming off her 12th year at Michigan State, was the coach.
"It was really cool playing for her, super encouraging and really cool off the court," Mikesell said. "It's nice to get to play for someone else and see their different playing styles between [Terps head coach Brenda Frese] and Coach Suzy."
Because the team stayed a 45-minute drive from the arena on the trip, Mikesell didn't get a chance to see how Merchant might react to her personal shooting ritual, though Mikesell was still the first one on the court to get shots before practice and go through her regular extensive pregame rituals of fine-tuning her stroke.
Speaking of Frese, Mikesell did get in time this summer with her "other team" in College Park, Md. She was with the Terrapins in June until U.S. training camp began at the end of July. She got in some work with teammates in August before leaving for Peru, as well.
There's no doubt that international play helps her game, according to Mikesell. Players have to adapt to different courts, sometimes hostile environments and a much more physical style of play. Frese, who is in the pipeline of U.S. international coaches, obviously agrees. She has had 12 of her Terps compete internationally for the U.S., including incoming freshman Diamond Miller on the U-19 team that won gold at the FIBA World Cup in Bangkok, Thailand, in July.
Talking Terps, Mikesell gets excited.
"I think we're going to be really dangerous. Only losing one senior last year [forward Brianna Fraser] is pretty incredible, and with the class coming in, it's going to be really scary with the pieces we have," she said.
Maryland returns all five starters, including Big Ten Freshman of the Year Mikesell, All-American Kaila Charles and All-Big Ten members Stephanie Jones and Shakira Austin. Maryland was 29-5, won the Big Ten regular season, finished ranked No. 11 nationally and advanced to the conference title game for a fifth straight year.
Miller is part of an incoming recruiting class rated the No. 3 group in the country by ESPN. The class aims to help open another window of opportunity to a Final Four appearance for Frese's team.
The 2019-20 season tips off Nov. 6 at home against Wagner, but a big national showcase game against South Carolina follows Nov. 10 at Xfinity Center.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of USA Basketball