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Three keys to watch as Northwestern looks to upset Maryland

After an opening Big Ten win, New Year’s Eve brings the stiffest test the ‘Cats have faced all season.

Northwestern v Duke Photo by Andy Mead/ISI Photos/Getty Images

With a 77-50 Sunday afternoon demolition of Illinois in Champaign to open Big Ten play, their ninth straight win against their downstate rival, Northwestern women’s basketball extended their impressive record to 11-1.

Thanks to a few impressive non-conference wins and a deep Big Ten, the path to the program’s second NCAA Tournament berth of the century is a clear one: go 9-9 in conference play and things look good. 10-8, and the ‘Cats would be a virtual lock. But this afternoon’s tilt with Maryland brings a chance to make some noise in the regular season.

Since the Terrapins, one of the most consistent women’s basketball powers in the country, joined the Big Ten, Northwestern and head coach Joe McKeown have never beaten them. Brenda Frese’s squad is 7-0 against the Wildcats, but that success is far from unique when it comes to Maryland’s conference opponents: after Sunday’s thorough win over then-#23 Michigan, the Terps are 77-10 in 5+ years of Big Ten play.

Simply put, 12th-ranked Maryland (10-2, 1-0 B1G) is the embodiment of the conference’s elite, and Northwestern, riding a six game winning streak, has a golden opportunity to knock them off at home on New Year’s Eve and earn a marquee win in what is not only the program’s last game of the decade, but the last official Northwestern Athletics game/event before 2020 as well.

Here’s what the Wildcats need to do to send the ‘10s out with a bang:

Let Lindsey Pulliam loose

After two seasons of carrying the load offensively, Northwestern’s leading scorer has showed no signs of slowing down in her junior season. Pulliam had arguably her best game of the season against Illinois, tallying 27 points, six rebounds, and three assists thanks to a career high-tying three made three pointers and her typical array of utterly ridiculous pull-up, fadeaway, catch-and-shoot, and hesitation midrange jumpers. It was her already her fourth 25+ point game of the season, and her 18.7 ppg average is third in the conference.

In two previous matchups against the Terps, the Maryland native has averaged 18.5 points per game on 46 percent shooting from the field. Against what is year-in and year-out one of the best defenses in the country, those numbers are impressive.

Obviously, Maryland is going to key on Pulliam defensively. It doesn’t matter. With an improved three point shot added to her arsenal (she is currently at 35 percent from three this season, nearly doubling last year’s 18 percent figure), the sharpshooting small forward is nearly unstoppable when she’s hitting shots. And to say she’s amped up for this game would be an understatement: her eyes lit up with even the mention of the word “Maryland” in Sunday’s postgame press conference.

Obviously, the Wildcats will need other sources of scoring in order to compete, but when it comes time for a clutch bucket, they might be well-suited just giving the ball to Pulliam and getting the hell out of the way.

Solidify the interior defense

With six players currently averaging at least 9.5 points per game, and two players knocking down more than 46 percent of their shots from beyond the arc, Maryland can hurt you from all over the court. But with Veronica Burton and Sydney Wood leading the charge for what has been a ferocious perimeter defense, and the Terps averaging 42 points in the paint per game, expect them to try to take advantage of perceived mismatches on the inside.

Abbie Wolf and co. have not exactly struggled on the defensive interior, but recently, that piece of Northwestern’s seventh-ranked scoring defense (nationally) has looked the most vulnerable. Illinois, who typically lives and dies by the three, shot just 2-20 from beyond the arc, earning 30 of their measly 50 points from the paint on Sunday, with many of those baskets coming early in the first quarter.

Kaila Charles and Shakira Austin, though, pose a much more significant threat down low than any members of the Illini. Charles, a 6’2” senior forward, just moved into ninth place all time on the Maryland scoring leaderboard with a 23 point, 11 rebound effort against the Wolverines. Austin, who is listed at 6’5”, is a more pure back-to-the-basket post, but has also showcased significant scoring ability.

Each player is averaging more than 13 points per game, and will be a handful underneath for a group of Northwestern bigs that have not yet seen their like in the 2019-20 season. Subdue them, and the path to victory is clear.

Limit mistakes, finish strong

In their one loss this season, against DePaul, the Wildcats had led by three with 1:30 to go. Some clutch shots by Sonja Morris of the Blue Demons, along with empty possessions and, crucially, two missed free throws from Veronica Burton, sealed the victory for DePaul. It also helped that the press of the Blue Demons forced NU into 18 turnovers, their second-highest number of the season.

Similar issues cropped up in crucial defeats during Big Ten play in 2018-19. The ‘Cats blew late leads against Michigan, Minnesota, and Purdue, due in large part to more missed free throws and unorganized possessions, though plenty of the credit also has to go to pure bad luck.

Northwestern also won plenty of close games during that season, notably pulling off three separate one-possession victories over the course of their magical WNIT run. Based off of that alone, it’s easy to write off the late-game miscues against DePaul as a one-off. But still, if the Wildcats manage to hang with a beatable, if impressive, Maryland team down the stretch, the difficulties are something they will have to overcome.