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Maryland women’s basketball vs. Illinois preview

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After cruising through the last month, the Terps start Big Ten play.

NCAA Womens Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Bridgeport Regional-Maryland vs Oregon David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Maryland women’s basketball starts its quest for a fourth straight Big Ten regular season title on Thursday when it takes on Illinois in College Park.

The Terps are currently on a nine-game win streak, and pummeled Coppin State, 113-49, in their most recent game on Dec. 20. Eleanna Christinaki had a stellar Maryland debut against the Eagles, and was named to the Big Ten honor roll after posting a career-high 32 points and six three-pointers.

The Terps finished non-conference play with an 11-2 record, and remain at No. 15 in the AP Poll.

For the first time since joining the Big Ten, Maryland isn’t the favorite in the conference. Despite being just three spots ahead of the Terps in the current AP Poll, Ohio State is the clear top dog. Michigan and Iowa could also make some noise, and are ranked 21st and 23rd in the AP Poll, respectively. Rutgers could cause trouble as well, as the Scarlet Knights are off to a 12-2 start against one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country.

Maryland won the conference outright in 2015 and 2016 before sharing the title with the Buckeyes last year.

Illinois is on the opposite end of the conference hierarchy and is off to a 9-5 start. Head coach Matt Bollant was fired last year after a 9-22 campaign, and Division III legend Nancy Fahey was hired to take over the program. Fahey was unable to keep the commit of Channise Lewis, who signed with Maryland weeks after Destiny Slocum announced her intent to transfer out of the program.

Tipoff is scheduled for 6 p.m. ET, and the game will be streamed on BTN Plus.

Illinois Fighting Illini (9-5)

Head coach Nancy Fahey is in her first season as the head coach at Illinois. She spent the previous 31 years at Washington University in St. Louis, where she won 737 games and won five national championships. She came to Champaign a year after WashU athletic director Josh Whitman was hired to the same position at Illinois.

Players to know

Alex Wittinger, junior, forward, 6’1, No. 35. Wittinger is leading Illinois in points and rebounds a game for the second straight year, and is currently averaging 13 points and 8.9 rebounds per game this season. She averaged 18 points and 8.5 rebounds in two games against Maryland last year, but shot an inefficient 39 percent from the field.

Brandi Beasley, sophomore, guard, 5’6, No. 1. After being named to the All-Freshman Team last year, Beasley is averaging 12.4 points and 3.5 assists per game. She struggled against Maryland last year, going just 10-of-37 from the field.

Ali Andrews, sophomore, forward, 6’2, No. 50. Andrews averages nine points per game and shoots a team-leading 40.8 percent from three-point range. She started eight games as a freshman, but has started all of the Illini’s 14 games this year.

Strength

Foul-shooting. The Illini’s 75.8 percent shooting from the foul-line is the best in the conference. If they keep it close Thursday night, this will be a big reason why.

Weakness

Defending three-pointers. Illinois’s opponents have hit 35.6 of their attempts from beyond the arc, which is 316th in Division I. The Terps have two potent shooters in Blair Watson and Kristen Confroy, and Christinaki looks like she could be another solid shooter from deep. If any of them are on, that’s a huge problem for Illinois.

Three things to watch

1. How does Eleanna Christinaki follow up her dominant debut? After starting slow, Christinaki took over against Coppin State. Head coach Brenda Frese said the plan was for Christinaki to get as familiar with as many rotations as possible, so she may see more minutes than expected early on to get her as comfortable as possible.

2. What trends from Maryland’s last month carry over into conference play? The Terps have looked much better than at the beginning of the season, improving on defense and becoming more efficient on the offensive end. Big Ten play will be a step up in competition, and will show how much of this improvement was due to Maryland raising its level of play or just having more talent than the opposition.

3. Can Blair Watson continue her hot streak? Watson showed no rust after a week off, burying 7-of-9 three-point attempts. She’s shooting 56 percent from beyond the arc in her last four games, and has at least five treys in her last three games.

Prediction

Maryland wins, 85-62.