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No. 17 Maryland women’s basketball vs. Michigan State preview

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The Terps will make the trip to East Lansing for a battle with the Spartans.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics

A rough patch including several Big Ten losses has turned into a three-game win streak for No. 17 Maryland women’s basketball.

It started on Jan. 23 with an 87-59 victory against Northwestern. The Terps followed that up with wins against Rutgers (72-55) and Penn State (82-71) to improve to 7-3 in conference play.

“I love where our energy and where our practices have been in the last couple of days,” head coach Brenda Frese said. “We’re looking forward to another terrific matchup against a really good team with Michigan State.”

After the Michigan State match, Maryland returns home for a Sunday matinee with Nebraska and a weekday meeting with Wisconsin before a brutal four-game stretch to end the season. The Terps close the year with No. 21 Iowa (Feb. 14), No. 23 Ohio State (Feb. 17), No. 6 Michigan (Feb. 20) and No. 5 Indiana (Feb. 25).

“We got to get these last couple of wins to make a big statement,” freshman Shyanne Sellers said. “We let a couple fall through our hands, but I think it’s all about our response.”

Thursday’s outing will be a difficult one; Michigan State has one of the nation’s top players, but more on her later. What’s more, both teams nearly have identical records in league play.

The contest versus Michigan State is set for Thursday with a 6 p.m. tipoff at Breslin Center and will air on the Big Ten Network.

Michigan State Spartans (12-8, 6-3 Big Ten)

2020-21 record: 15-9 (8-7 Big Ten)

Head coach Suzy Merchant is in her 15th season in charge of Michigan State. Since taking over as the program’s fifth coach in 2007, Merchant has a 296-157 (.656) record in East Lansing. Throughout her career in Michigan, Merchant has led her team to 10 NCAA Tournament appearances and boasts a record of 144-93 (60.8%) in league play.

Twice during her tenure has Merchant led the Spartans to the Big Ten championship, first winning in 2011 and then in 2014. Merchant was also named the Big Ten Coach of the Year in 2011.

Before taking over in East Lansing, Merchant spent time as the head coach at Eastern Michigan (1998-07) and Saginaw Valley State (1995-98). In 25 years as a head coach, she has won 497 games to 277 losses. Just three wins shy of 500, Merchant is one of the most respected coaches in basketball.

“[Suzy] always has her team well prepared and puts them in great positions to be successful,” Frese said of her coaching counterpart. “They’ve had a lot of adversity as well this year, and they just continue to keep working really hard. I expect it to be a game that we have to come in and put a 40-minute game together.”

Players to know

Nia Clouden, senior guard, 5-foot-8, No. 24 — One of the undisputed top players in the Big Ten, Clouden is third in the division in scoring with 21 points per game. The 2021 First-Team All-Big Ten selection is a dangerous shooter, knocking down 45% of her field goals and 41% of her threes on 90 attempts. The Marylander also averages more than one steal per game and has the potential to go off; she had 50 points earlier this season against FGCU.

“Michigan State, led by Nia Clouden, [she’s] a really, really special talent — someone we’re gonna really have to make work hard within this game,” Frese said. “She’s really good at drawing fouls, and we’re gonna have to be really disciplined in not allowing her to get to the free-throw line.”

Matilda Ekh, freshman guard, 6-foot, No. 11 — The Robin to Clouden’s Batman this season is one of the younger players on the roster. Swapping Sweden for East Lansing, Ekh has proven a reliable scorer capable of taking the burden off of Clouden. She is tied for second on the team in scoring with 12.2 points. Ekh also has made 43% of her 107 three-point attempts this season, tied for the third-best in the Big Ten. Watch out, Katie Benzan; Michigan State has a pair of hawkeyes from deep.

DeeDee Hagemann, freshman guard, 5-foot-7, No. 0 — Another newcomer, Hagemann isn’t a huge scorer (7.9 points per game), but she has been entrusted with ball-handling duties this season. Through 20 games, the Detroit native has dished out 5.4 assists, which is good for fifth-most in the conference. She can find teammates even when they don’t look open and will test Maryland’s defense early and often on Thursday.

Strength

Scoring and playmaking. Michigan State is fifth (74.4) in the Big Ten in points per game, sixth in field-goal percentage (45%), fourth in three-point percentage (36.5%) and third in free-throw rate (76%). It also trails just one team, Iowa, in assists. The Spartans can score the ball, whether it's from the paint, behind the arc, or from the charity stripe.

“[Ekh and Hagemann] are playing really well,” Frese said. “They’re rounding into form like they’re sophomores. They play heavy minutes for them. Hagemann is running the team at the PG spot and Ekh is shooting the ball extremely well.”

Weakness

Inexperience. Having two first-years leading the charge is a double-edged sword. It bodes well for the future but means your team relies upon inexperienced players. Ekh and Hagemann are budding stars of the team, but Maryland boasts one of the most experienced squads in the Big Ten. Also worth noting: Michigan State has yet to face Maryland, Michigan and Indiana, three of the five teams ahead of them in the standings. They lost to the other two — Iowa and OSU.

Three things to watch

1. How will the Terps stop Clouden? Teams stop Clouden by making it difficult for her teammates. Aside from a season-low seven points against Purdue, Clouden has scored more than 12 points in every match. Stopping a scorer like Clouden in one-on-one situations is nearly impossible, but she can’t win a game alone — Michigan State lost the game she put up 50. If the Terps can bottle up her teammates, Michigan State’s offense will sputter.

2. Can the Terps get their fourth straight win? The Big Ten is one of the most unforgiving conferences in all college sports, and the Terps have felt the full force of several top-10 teams in recent weeks. Still, after forgettable outings against Michigan and Ohio State, Maryland has pulled things together and seen off three challengers. The question come Thursday: can they dispatch the Spartans to make it four?

“We kind of have to stay consistent,” Sellers said. “I think we’re lacking a little bit of consistency. We’re trying to figure the kinks out a little bit.”

3. Which team will win the three-point battle? Most teams can’t match what Maryland graduate guard Katie Benzan can do from deep. If they can, Benzan usually has to outduel her opponent’s top three-point shooter. Michigan State has two players making over 40% from three —Clouden and Ekh — to compete with Benzan. Thursday’s game should be a clinic on defending and working the perimeter.