COLLEGE PARK -- It's hard to believe now, especially when she flashes her winning grin, but Jessie Hicks wasn't always this outgoing.
Today, Hicks is the 6-foot-4 junior center on the eighth-ranked Maryland women's basketball team. But just a few years ago, she was a gangly teen-ager on the streets of Richmond, Va., taller than just about everyone else she knew and not terribly self-assured.
Hicks' confidence was at such an ebb that her older sister had to talk her into going out for the Thompson Middle School girls team when she was a seventh-grader.
"She made it [trying out] into a joke," said Hicks. "I was too scared. I was kind of shy and I was afraid that I might not make it onto the team.
"Besides, I was so clumsy and I was still trying to live out my childhood and I wasn't sure if I wanted to play."
Needless to say, Hicks made the team, and led it to an area championship the next year. She is hoping to do the same this BTC year, as she leads Maryland -- the second seed in the Mideast Regional of the NCAA women's tournament -- into tonight's game against third seed Purdue in West Lafayette, Ind.
Hicks might have doubted her abilities as an adolescent, but there is no question today that she has made it.
She was named a first-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection by the league's coaches, averaging 14.7 points and pulling down 7.5 rebounds, both team highs.
In addition, Hicks is shooting 58.6 percent from the field, a mark that is tops in the conference and 19th-best in the nation. She also leads the ACC with 1.6 blocked shots per game.
Hicks, one of six Maryland players to pass the 1,000-point career mark as a junior, has seen her numbers increase and her overall play improve after spending last summer working on her footwork and on catching the ball in traffic.
She was a member of the gold-medal winning East team in last summer's U.S. Olympic Festival, averaging a team-high 13.8 points. The East's coach, Jim Foster of Vanderbilt, told Hicks she could be dominant, and she set out to prove it.
"During the summer, I tried to concentrate on using my pivot foot better," said Hicks. "I knew that was going to be important, because Coach [Chris] Weller said they [officials] will be looking for me to travel."
In a season during which a number of different Maryland players have stepped forward at opportune moments to contribute, Hicks has become the consistent offensive threat in the low post. At times, that has been a dual-edged sword for the Terps.
Since Maryland beat Virginia in mid-January to begin a four-week run as No. 1 in the nation, Hicks has become the target of rival defenses, which have conceded the Terps' perimeter game to neutralize their center.
In three of Maryland's past five games, Hicks has been so smothered by sagging zone defenses that she has played about one half, including Saturday's 73-60 second-round NCAA victory over Toledo. In that game she sat out the last 18:24, scoring seven points and grabbing three rebounds.
"I'm not frustrated," Hicks said. "I'm glad we won. I saw we wereclicking. We were in a combination that was working for us. I've been out on the floor where the unit I was running with was clicking and I didn't come out. That happens."
Hicks said she chose Maryland over Virginia three years ago because she liked the school and thought she would get playing time with the departure of All-America center Vicky Bullett.