Well this is unexpected. Seconds away from going home against 13th-seeded Wisconsin on Wednesday, Northwestern now finds itself one win away from playing for a berth in the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats reward for three straight victories is a date with the Big Ten regular season champion Maryland Terrapins.
While there was no doubt that games against Minnesota and Indiana presented challenges for the Wildcats, playing against Maryland will be an entirely new challenge for Joe McKeown’s bunch.
Maryland was one of the teams that Northwestern played twice this season, dropping both contests against the Terps, on January 17th in College Park and February 14th in Evanston. Northwestern showed signs of hanging with Maryland in both contests, but putting it together for four quarters will be a massive challenge.
What makes Maryland so impressive as a team is the fact that they can hurt their opponents in so many different ways. Shatori Walker-Kimbrough came into the Big Ten Tournament averaging 19.6 points per game, an impressive number, but it’s not just her who is dangerous. Brionna Jones averages nearly a double-double, with 15.6 points and 9.5 boards per game. As well, both Brene Moseley and Malina Howard complement Walker-Kimbrough and Jones. When Maryland isn’t attacking the paint with any of those players, Tierney Pfirman and Kristen Confroy are splashing long-balls from beyond the arc.
So far in the Big Ten Tournament, Joe McKeown has done a wonderful job of game planning to take perimeter scorers out of the game. Against Wisconsin, Nicole Bauman struggled to put the ball in the basket. For Minnesota, Rachel Banham was taken out of her comfort zone, struggling to 26 points on 20-plus shots. Yesterday against Indiana, Tyra Buss fought her way to an inefficient 16 points on 18 shots. While stopping Walker-Kimbrough will be a challenge, the Wildcats’ defense against their previous foes in this tournament has shown they may stand a chance. Where Northwestern will no doubt struggle will be against Jones and Howard down low. Indiana was able to collect a number of offensive rebounds, and if Maryland is allowed to do so, the Terrapins may just dominate the proceedings.
While Maryland is stronger on offense than on defense, the overall length of the Terrapins will no doubt give Northwestern trouble. Against Indiana, Nia Coffey was the central focus of Northwestern’s offense, and the ‘Cats would do well to make her the focus against the Terps today. Maryland may lack a player capable of stopping Coffey, especially if she’s attacking the rim as she was against the Hoosiers. Coffey of course can’t do it alone, meaning Northwestern’s role players will have to step up once again. If Northwestern can score enough points offensively, the ‘Cats may just find themselves in position to make a game of it late against the top-seeded Terps.
At this point, Northwestern is playing with house money. Even though the ‘Cats were given a favorable draw, very few expected Northwestern to make a run to the semifinals. Having already exceeded expectations, Northwestern will be able to play with the knowledge that the pressure is squarely on Maryland’s shoulders Saturday afternoon. Though Northwestern is heavy underdogs, in a tournament that has seen Northwestern catch all the breaks, the ‘Cats are just a few breaks away from playing for a spot in the NCAA Tournament.