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No. 20 Maryland women’s basketball is adjusting to a strong Big Ten conference

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The Terps have faced stiffer competition in the conference this season and are now climbing their way back to the top.

Photo courtesy of Maryland athletics

Maryland women’s basketball came into Big Ten play with two losses — both to top-15 teams — but stumbled to a 2-2 start in conference play with losses to unranked Northwestern and Iowa squads.

On Sunday, the No. 20 Terps fought off early pressure en route to a 70-61 victory over No. 22 Northwestern to pull themselves one step closer to first place in the Big Ten.

“[The win] speaks volumes to this team,” Frese said. “Just their fight and their commitment to stay the course. A month ago we didn’t quite adjust to this game that well. So I think you see the strides we’ve been able to make coming out of that.”

A meeting after the loss to Iowa has turned Maryland into a “player-led” team, according to Frese. It’s also led to the resurgence of the Terps, who have now won five games in a row.

“I don’t think we played all that well — we played really well in Evanston,” said Northwestern head coach Joe McKeown. “Watching the last couple weeks since our game and the Iowa game, [Maryland] played really well. I think that they’re playing with a lot of confidence.”

Despite losing Shakira Austin just before halftime (she suffered an ankle-related injury and will be evaluated over the next day or two), Maryland came out in the second half and played with the confidence it needed to grab the victory back from the hands of the Wildcats.

“Like coach [Frese] said, it’s been player-driven,” Taylor Mikesell said. “We want to bring the energy from the start. We’ve had a lot of really good starts since Iowa, and it’s kind of sparked from the defensive end and it’s kind of led to our offensive game.”

Stephanie Jones scored 14 points and grabbed 11 points as the focus forward, while Faith Masonius put in a solid 17 minutes that resulted in six points, three rebounds and a few flashy passes.

Freshman guard Ashley Owusu also played into the elevated confidence — scoring 11 of her 13 points in the second half and playing with noticeable intensity on both ends down the stretch.

“[The players] have really taken the ownership and accountability of their season,” Frese said. “You’re kind of able to see this growth and I thought the punch off the bench was huge. The play that Ashley gave us today — we have to continue to have that. We’re small in numbers, so everyone’s got to be ready to continue to play that way.”

In five years as a part of the Big Ten, Maryland has won four regular seasons and three conference tournaments — but sitting in a tie for second place in late January is a new feeling.

“This is the deepest I’ve ever seen the Big Ten,” McKeown said. “You’ve got one through 13 or even 14 some nights that can beat each other. On the road ... is a tough place in the Big Ten. The league is just so deep and I think you’re going to see that in March and probably in the Big Ten tournament.”

Maryland will have five road games and four home matchups in its final nine regular season contests — while having to face daunting Big Ten talents night in and night out.

“It’s awesome,” Frese said. “When you talk about every game you play you’re gonna be challenged, you’re gonna be battle tested. Even our game at Illinois — you can’t just show up anymore. This game doesn’t mean a lot if you go to Ohio State and aren’t ready to play the next game, so I love the fact that with nine games left you’re gonna be battled tested. We’re playing everyone in the top half of the league twice, they’re going to have to come back through Xfinity.”

Each of the Terps’ final four home games are against teams with positive records — with Michigan State (11-9, 4-5) being the team with the lowest record they face. The key for Frese and her team though is to focus on themselves first and get better each game.

“These great teams — they’re very veteran-led,” Frese said. “There’s a lot of junior and senior guard play and veteran teams like Northwestern. So they’re going to make you better every time you step out on the floor.”