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Three takeaways from No. 20 Maryland women’s basketball’s 79-60 win over Illinois

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Here’s what we noticed from the Terps’ 15th win of the season.

James Madison v Maryland Photo by G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images

Following an inconsistent start to Big Ten play, No. 20 Maryland women’s basketball looks to have made a return to form over its last four games.

The Terps have now won four straight, most recently dispatching Illinois 79-60 in Urbana-Champaign on Thursday night to improve to 15-4 on the season and 6-2 in conference play.

Here’s what stood out from Maryland’s latest win.

1. Sara Vujacic might deserve more minutes

With the likes of guards Taylor Mikesell and Blair Watson patrolling the perimeter, the Terps figured to be one of the better three-point shooting teams in the Big Ten this season. Just last year, Mikesell set a program record for three-pointers made in a single season by a freshman (95), while Watson shot 40.1 percent from deep over the last two seasons.

But Maryland’s duo of sharpshooters has struggled to find their touch from deep since the Northwestern loss Dec. 31, shooting a combined 25-of-94 (26.5 percent). Thursday night’s game, though, saw the emergence of another potential Terp shooting threat.

Senior guard Sara Vujacic has played sparingly this season, but played a massive role off the bench against Illinois. She stepped on the floor and immediately sank her first two attempts from the three point line, adding another in the fourth quarter to finish the night 3-for-6 shooting from beyond the arc.

She added a high-arcing floater in the final minutes as well, making it the first time since Nov. 24 that she’s scored in double-digits.

The sample size for Vujacic this season is still relatively small, but her big performance on Thursday night should not go unnoticed by the coaching staff — especially given how Mikesell and Watson have struggled recently.

2. Shakira Austin has significantly improved her free throw shooting

The 6’5” sophomore forward has been a formidable inside presence for the Terps ever since she arrived to campus in 2018. But one area where teams could find a way to slow her down was by forcing her to earn her points at the charity stripe.

In her freshman season, Austin shot 47.9 percent from the free throw line on 144 attempts, the lowest mark on the team last season (min. 20 attempts).

But Austin appears to have put in the work in the offseason to make sure free throw shooting wasn’t going to be something opposing teams could exploit this season. This season, Austin has shot 64 percent from line, a vast improvement compared to last season while on pace to surpass her marks for free throws made and free throw attempts from 2018-19.

Thursday’s game was another example of how Austin can cause problems when she’s drawing fouls, sinking six out of her nine attempts including a sweet and-one down the stretch to help put the Illini away.

Should Austin continue to develop her mid-range jumper as well, she’ll be on the verge of being a complete player by the time she graduates.

3. Kaila Charles led the way once again for the Terps

The senior guard had another banner performance Thursday night, scoring a game-high 20 points and coming one rebound short of a double-double to further solidify her case as the Big Ten Player of the Year.

Her 20-point performance marked the fourth time in the last six games that she’s scored over 20 points, pushing her season average to the top of the team with 14.6 per contest. She also surpassed 1800 career points in tenure with the Terps, placing her ninth on the program’s all-time scoring list.

“I thought Kaila was Kaila,” head coach Brenda Frese said after Illinois. “She was sensational. Drawing fouls, getting to the free throw line and being really aggressive and making big plays for us.”

As Charles comes down the stretch of her final season with the team, getting consistent high-scoring performances from her will be crucial to whether the team will live up to the championship aspirations it had at the beginning of the season. And although she will not reach the scoring heights set by the likes of Terp greats Alyssa Thomas and Crystal Langhorne, she can leave a lasting legacy with the team by leading this team deep into the NCAA tournament.