After a Big Ten season of ups and downs that saw the team outclassed three different times, Maryland women’s basketball is back at the top with the opportunity to win the league title.
“We control our own destiny, and if we do what we need to on Saturday, we can ultimately come out regular season champs by ourselves and not have to share,” junior guard Kaila Charles said.
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for the Terrapins, and even in the last two games, they were trailing in the fourth quarter and needed a tremendous effort to come out with the victory.
“We’ve really grown up through these games,” head coach Brenda Frese said Thursday at practice. “Not that you welcome it, because it’s a little too close for comfort, but it really does prepare you for postseason. As long as we can continue to keep learning from winning and not have to take a loss out of it, I like that even in a lot of adversity, we’ve continued to just fight, scratch and claw.”
But with that in the past, there is just one thing for the Terps to do: beat last-place Illinois at home. Doing so will give them their first outright Big Ten regular-season title since the 2015-16 season, and with that will come a No. 1 seed in the conference tournament.
Despite what their record might indicate, the Illini have talent and could make things interesting. But knowing what’s at stake, Maryland would be smart to start strong and play a stress-free game.
“It shouldn’t be hard for us to get up for any team that we play on Saturday with everything that we’re fighting for,” Frese said. “I know we’ll be hungry and motivated, just like Illinois will be to knock us off.”
The regular season finale will be played on Saturday, March 2, at the Xfinity Center. Tipoff is scheduled for 2 p.m. ET and the game can be watched on BTN Plus.
What happened last time
The Terrapins were over two weeks removed from their loss on the road to Michigan State when they had the chance to face Illinois, and they were out for blood. They entered play on Feb. 4 in the midst of a four-game winning streak, winning by an average of 15.75 points per contest.
While the last-place Illini were able to avoid being completely decimated, Maryland’s streak of strong play continued en route to an 80-66 victory. Thanks to an early 14-2 run in the first quarter, the Terps jumped out to a 12-point lead after 10 minutes and never looked back. Shakira Austin had her best offensive performance of the season, scoring 17 points on 6-of-9 shooting with seven rebounds. Taylor Mikesell was also effective, adding 14 points after making four three-pointers in just nine attempts.
Illinois was led by Brandi Beasley, Sarah Shewan and Alex Wittinger, who combined for 48 points. However, the rest of the team failed to provide adequate support, as the remaining seven players combined for just 18 points on 7-of-22 shooting.
What’s happened since
Maryland’s hot stretch continued for the next three outings, as the Terps’ eight-game winning streak pushed them to the top of the Big Ten standings. However, a tough road loss to Iowa took away the team’s sole possession of first place in the conference. In the two games since the defeat, Maryland has trailed in the fourth quarter both times, but strong play from its leaders down the stretch has brought the Terrapins back into a position where they control their own destiny.
While Maryland continued its winning ways following the first meeting, Illinois has struggled to turn around its lost season. The Illini were blown out by Purdue three days after the game against the Terrapins, but a home win over Wisconsin gave hope that they could make a late push. That never happened, as Illinois will enter play not only on a four-game losing streak (by an average of 13.8 points per game), but also ranking last in the Big Ten standings with a 2-15 conference record. That places the Illini a whopping 12 games behind first-place Maryland, and being two games behind Wisconsin, they are locked into the No. 14 seed in the Big Ten tournament.
Three things to watch
1. Can Maryland close the season off strong? After years of dominance to kick off its time in the Big Ten after leaving the ACC, Maryland had a tough season in 2017-18, at least by its incredible standards. The Terrapins failed to win either the regular-season title or conference tournament for the first time in the new league. But now, even after a trio of tough losses, Maryland has the chance to keep last year behind it and win the title by taking care of business against Illinois.
2. Will Brianna Fraser play? The senior forward went down with a sprained left ankle just over a week ago, and she remains day-to-day and questionable to suit up on Saturday in the regular season finale. And while it would make perfect sense to keep Fraser sidelined until the Big Ten tournament (or perhaps even the NCAA Tournament), there is some added motivation to play her against the Illini. Sunday is Senior Day at the Xfinity Center, and Fraser is the lone graduating player on this team. It’s her last regular-season home game in front of the College Park crowd, although Maryland has all but locked up two home matches to start the NCAA Tournament.
“I know she wants to play on Senior Day, but I think big picture for us is making sure she’s ready here for postseason,” Frese said.
3. Does it matter? Fraser’s contributions have been vital for the Terrapins all season long, but if there’s one thing Illinois struggles with, it’s size. Even if the senior is to miss the game, then Shakira Austin and Stephanie Jones should be enough to control the paint regardless. And depending how the game shakes out, freshman Olivia Owens may even get some playing time.