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No. 12 Maryland women’s basketball vs. Northwestern preview

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The Terps look to rebound from two consecutive losses.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics
UMTerps

No. 12 Maryland women’s basketball returns to the Xfinity Center to play host to the Northwestern Wildcats on Sunday afternoon.

The Terps are coming off their second straight loss after falling to Ohio State on the road Thursday night, 95-89. With 89 points and the entire starting five scoring at least 12 points, the offense was not the problem for Maryland against the Buckeyes. Allowing 95 points, 33 of which were scored by former Maryland guard Taylor Mikesell, was the bigger issue.

After digging itself into a 10-point deficit early, Maryland was unable to respond. The Terps only held the lead for one minute and 45 seconds in total, having to play from behind for the whole game. The Buckeyes were efficient on the offensive end, converting on 55% of their field goals and eight of their 14 three-point attempts.

Thursday’s product was anything but mundane, but the Terps came out on the wrong side of it and are now only 4-3 in Big Ten play. Maryland’s six losses are more than the program has had in a single season since the 2017-18 campaign when it went 26-8.

Associate head coach Karen Blair took on the acting head coach role Thursday in the absence of head coach Brenda Frese, who was attending her father Bill’s funeral services in Iowa.

There is still plenty of time for Maryland to turn it around, and the schedule opens up a bit for the team to get on a roll. All of Maryland’s losses would not come close to being labeled as “bad,” and its strong strength of schedule could help it as the season continues.

Sunday's contest is set to tip at 1 p.m. and air on BTN Plus.

Northwestern Wildcats (11-6, 3-3 Big Ten)

2020-21 record: 16-9 (11-7 Big Ten)

Northwestern is led by storied head coach Joe McKeown, who is in his 14th season leading the program. McKeown entered the season ranked 15th all-time in NCAA women’s basketball victories across all divisions. Before coming to Northwestern in 2008, he spent 19 seasons at George Washington, where he brought the Colonials to four Sweet 16’s and an Elite Eight appearance in 1997. McKeon’s Wildcats went 26-4 in 2020, splitting the regular-season title with Maryland before the season was abruptly ended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Wildcats have had a rollercoaster season but are coming off two straight losses and three defeats in their last four games. Northwestern does have a signature win at then-No. 22 Iowa on Jan. 6 to its name. In Northwestern’s most recent game, Penn State went on the road and defeated the Wildcats, 63-59.

Players to know

Veronica Burton, senior guard, 5-foot-9, No. 12 — One of the conference’s best players resides in Evanston, Illinois, and her name is Veronica Burton. The two-time reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year — and a First Team All-Big Ten selection in 2020-21 — is having another great season in purple and white. Burton is by far the Wildcats’ top scorer at 17.4 points per game. Her defensive prowess is perhaps more impressive, as she is third in the nation with 4.29 steals per game. According to Her Hoop Stats, Burton has the fourth-most win shares in the nation with 6.9.

Caileigh Walsh, first-year forward, 6-foot-3, No. 10 — The Northwestern frosh is the only other member of the team averaging at least 10 points per game. Walsh sits at that exact scoring mark, but she has proven herself as a rim protector just 17 games into her young career. Walsh is recording 1.94 blocks per game and will have a big test ahead of her in sophomore forward/guard Angel Reese.

Courtney Shaw, senior forward, 6-foot, No. 15 — Shaw has started every game for Northwestern this season and is the team’s third-leading scorer at 8.1 points per night. Sunday is a bit of a homecoming game for Shaw, who played at Perry Hall High School in the Baltimore area. Hall’s scoring average has more than doubled her mark from her 2019-20 sophomore season.

Strength

Defense. Led by Burton, the Wildcats do a solid job limiting their opponents. In Big Ten games alone, Northwestern has the fourth-best scoring defense (63.8 points per game) and the second-best field-goal defense (39.4%) in the conference. With the exception of its dud against Michigan, Maryland’s offense can be a machine. Northwestern lost by 13 to Ohio State, the Big Ten’s second-best scoring offense, but held it to nearly six points fewer than its season average.

Weakness

Shooting. Northwestern has problems putting the ball through the hoop. The Wildcats, shooting only 39.1% from the field, are dead last in the Big Ten and 224th in the country (as of Friday) in team field-goal percentage. However, Maryland has the worst field-goal percentage defense in the Big Ten. Push will come to shove when the Terps and the Wildcats meet Sunday.

Three things to know

1. Can the Terps set the tone from start to finish? In each of its last two games, Maryland has seen significant deficits early. Through 10 minutes in both matchups, the Terps were down 10 points and only scored 15.5 points per first quarter. If Maryland can come out of the gates with an emphatic start Sunday, it may never look back. A quick beginning could be the key for a much-needed, sweat-free win against Northwestern.

“We’re gonna work on starting hungrier and more motivated,” said graduate student guard Katie Benzan during Thursday’s postgame presser. “We need to start with a chip on our shoulders so that doesn’t happen again.”

2. How will Maryland’s perimeter defense look? Michigan’s Maddie Nolan and Mikesell destroyed Maryland from deep, combining to go 12-of-16 against the Terps. Minnesota’s Deja Winters, Purdue’s Brooke Moore, Miami’s Kelsey Marshall, Stanford’s Hannah Jump, Aryna Taylor of Mount St. Mary’s, and Villanova’s Lior Garzon also make up the eight players to make at least five threes against Maryland in a single game this season.

“We got to lock down in that area,” Benzan added Thursday. “Because we can’t really let players like Maddie Nolan or Taylor Mikesell get off like that.”

These performances are slightly concerning for the Terps, but it has become a focus in practice and should be something that they will have time to improve on this season. In its Jan. 2 overtime loss against Indiana, Maryland only allowed three three-point makes. It was an encouraging performance in that aspect and one that this team could use against Northwestern.

3. Can Ashley Owusu get back on track? Everyone who watches Maryland knows just how lethal Owusu can be on the offensive end. This season, though, the Terps’ point guard has seen both her scoring and shooting numbers take a dip. Compared to her 17.9 points per game clip last season, Owusu is only scoring 15.3 points on average. Her overall shooting percentage has also dropped nine full percentage points from last season, from 49.3% to 40.3%. A 3-of-15 shooting performance against the Buckeyes is discouraging, but Maryland is hoping its star can get moving in the right direction at home.

“Obviously Ashley and all of us would have loved her to finish better,” Blair said Thursday. “But what I was proud of is she was taking a lot of contact and she just kept playing through it, and that’s all we can ask her to do.”