Come Sunday, March will have officially arrived for No. 7 Maryland women’s basketball, and with that every game has greater meaning intertwined.
The road matchup against Minnesota is the final regular season game of the year and will provide a chance for the Terps to clinch the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament.
Maryland is tied atop the standings with No. 14 Northwestern, and each team has one game remaining in the regular season. The Wildcats face off against 13th-place Illinois on Saturday, but the main focus for Brenda Frese’s squad is simply to win.
“We’re just focused on ourselves,” senior Kaila Charles said. “We just need to go out there and just pay attention to our game plan and play Maryland basketball. ... We control our destiny, not necessarily them, so we just got to go out there and play hard, get the win and seal our position.”
As for the top seed in the Big Ten tournament, Maryland would hold the advantage over Northwestern since it went 1-1 against third-place Iowa as opposed to the Wildcats, who lost their only matchup against the Hawkeyes.
Tipoff on Sunday is set for 4 p.m. ET, and the game will be televised on ESPN2.
Minnesota Golden Gophers (15-13, 5-12)
Head coach Lindsay Whalen is in her second season leading her alma mater. Last year, she finished with a 21-11 overall record and 9-9 mark in the Big Ten. Whalen led the Golden Gophers to the second round of the WNIT last spring, but the program suffered a big loss this season and is still reeling.
The Golden Gophers started the season with 11 wins after a season-opening loss to Missouri State, but they then went on to suffer a five-game losing streak between from the end of December to mid-January. Just before a loss to Iowa on Jan 16., junior Destiny Pitts — who had started 15 games to begin the season — announced her decision to transfer away from the program after a team-imposed suspension due to “body language.”
Minnesota has accumulated a 4-7 record since the loss of Pitts and has lost the last five games ahead of Sunday’s matchup.
Players to know
Senior forward Taiye Bello (No. 5) is the dominant force inside the paint for Minnesota, averaging 12.1 points and 9.6 rebounds per game. She stands at 6’2 and has a twin sister, Kehinde Bello, who comes off the bench with the same size. In 2018-19, Taiye was named an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention after a season in which she broke a program record with 152 offensive rebounds.
Redshirt junior guard Gadiva Hubbard (No. 34) is a Virginia Beach, Virginia native who averages 11.2 points and 3.2 rebounds per game while shooting 35.7 percent from three-point range. Hubbard did not play last year due to injury, but is working to follow up a 2017-18 season where she played in 32 games — including 31 starts.
Freshmen Sara Scalia (No. 14) and Jasmine Powell (No. 4) have been welcomed additions to the Minnesota program and have cemented key roles in just their first seasons. Scalia has played in 28 games — with 27 starts — and has been a long-range threat, averaging 11.1 points per game and shooting 37.9 percent from three-point range.
Powell has averaged 12.1 points across 28 games this season and has started the last nine contests. Powell was rated as the No. 78 player in the 2019 class, according to ESPN.
Three-point shooting. The Golden Gophers are not afraid to put up long range shots with Bello inside to rebound. As a team, Minnesota averages 20.8 three-point attempts per game and converts at a 36.4 percent rate. Masha Adashchyk leads the team with a 50 percent mark off the bench this season, while key figures Scalia and Hubbard average 37.9 percent and 35.7 percent, respectively, from beyond the arc.
Shooting defense. Minnesota ultimately does well to make sure it takes more shots than its opponents, but those opponents convert at a higher rate (42.4 percent) when they do shoot the ball. During the current five-game losing streak, four of the Golden Gophers’ opponents have shot over 50 percent from the field — and the Terps will look to do the same.
Three things to watch
1. How will the Terps handle manage aggressiveness and battles inside? Minnesota averages 37.1 rebounds per game and will not shy away from play in the paint. Not many teams can combat opponents with the height that Maryland has, so the Terps should be able to give the Golden Gophers a tough task inside.
“We know they’re going to be aggressive,” Charles said. “They love to shoot the three, they have an incredible rebounder in [Bello]. We just got to make sure we stick to our game plan and stick to our defense, which kind of plays into how they play.”
2. Will Diamond Miller continue to excel? In the last three games, Miller has finished with at least 12 points off the bench and played at least 19 minutes in each contest. She has also added three steals and two blocks across the three contests to expand her effort on both ends of the floor.
“In our staff meetings — we talked about it — it was her best defensive game against Purdue,” Frese said. “She’s finishing every layup she takes going to the rim and you see from the three now just the comfort level and confidence she’s shooting the ball with.”
Maryland will need contribution from Miller, Sara Vujacic and Faith Masonius down the stretch, and the positive ascension by Miller is coming at the right time.
“The game is definitely slowing down,” Miller said. “I’m just taking every opportunity and stepping on the court and playing as hard as I can.”
3. What will the Maryland energy level be like? Maryland has been able to take things rather easy over the last couple weeks of the season with just two games in the 17 days prior to the Big Ten tournament. Breaks can be positive, but also negative for teams.
“Getting a lot of rest,” Frese said has been the top priority of the time off. “Being able to use these two weeks of the bye stretch to fine-tune where we need to go, but really having our legs ready with the kind of intensity we play with defensively.”