By Ari Levin
The Northwestern Wildcats women’s basketball team, winners of four straight, travels to Harrisonburg, Va. to take on the James Madison Dukes in the WNIT semifinals Wednesday. A win puts Northwestern in the finals. A loss ends their season and the career of Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah.
James Madison is a good team that had a great season – though shouldn’t be seen as quite as tough a foe as West Virginia or Ohio. Their best wins have come in the last week, and their only top-50 RPI opponent this year was a 26-point loss to Maryland. While JMU has suffered just five losses all season, some of those have come against very weak competition, including against RPI #229 Hofstra.
The Dukes thrive on their defense. They rank second in the country in scoring defense, allowing just 51 points per game. While they play at one of the slowest paces in the nation, they still rank fourth in defensive efficiency (per HerHoopStats) and second in opponent field goal percentage behind only Baylor.
They’re a very good rebounding team, ranking fifth in the nation in rebounds per game. What’s unclear is how much of that is a product of playing against smaller competition in the CAA and how that will translate to playing a Big Ten foe. They have the size to be successful, starting with 6-foot-2-inch Kayla Cooper-Williams, who averages 10.1 rebounds per game, along with several tall guards who can help on the glass.
Kamiah Smalls leads James Madison with 16.0 points per game. Smalls is an efficient scorer who can make shots from anywhere on the floor. She scored 32 in their last win over Georgetown. However, Jackie Benitez has more shot attempts than any other Duke. The Siena transfer averages 9.0 3-point attempts per game but shoots just 30 percent from beyond the arc. She’ll take a lot of shots against Northwestern’s defense, and the Wildcats can likely dare her to beat them from outside given her low percentage. How Benitez shoots could be the difference in this one.
This matchup charts as a slow defensive battle. That seems like a good matchup for the Wildcats, but they’ve lost that kind of game before. Northwestern needs to find a way to consistently score in the halfcourt to stay in this game. If they do, they will grind their way to the finals.
You can catch WNUR Sports’ coverage of this game tonight beginning at approximately 5:45pm central time on air at 89.3 FM or online through Mixlr or the TuneIn Radio app! Matt McHugh has the call from Harrisonburg.