With Saturday’s third straight comeback win, Northwestern (20-14, 9-9 B1G) advanced to the WNIT Final Four for the first time in program history. The Wildcats will attempt to continue their run against James Madison (29-5, 17-1 CAA) tonight at the Convocation Center in Harrisonburg, Virginia, with the winner facing off against either TCU or Arizona on Saturday.
James Madison marks the third straight NCAA Tournament-quality team the Wildcats have faced in the WNIT, after Ohio and West Virginia (each of whom were firmly on the bubble). The Dukes were never going to reach the Big Dance as an at large thanks to some very bad losses, but after a shocker against Hofstra in their first game in the CAA Tournament knocked them out of contention, they have turned things on.
The Dukes pride themselves on their defense. James Madison allows just 50.9 points per game on the year, good for second in the country. Their stifling, slow pace (their games average just 66 possessions per 40 minutes this season, good for 32nd-lowest nationally) makes them vulnerable to upsets, but also allows them to hang with most competition
The Dukes haven’t had that theory tested too often, though. Their third round NIT win over Virginia Tech was impressive, but before that their only top tier opponent was Maryland, who smoked them. Because of the weakness of the CAA, which only features Drexel as a legit competitor for James Madison, they haven’t had much of a chance to go up against solid competition.
Said vaunted defense did put on a show in the quarterfinals, allowing the Dukes to hold Georgetown to 44 points in a ten-point win. Offensively, however, regardless of opponent, James Madison is clearly limited. Guard Kamiah Smalls leads the way, tallying 16 points per game on 47.2 percent shooting across the 2018-19 season. But the 5-10 junior has not shot above 40 percent yet in a WNIT game, and turns the ball over more than three times per contest.
Second-leading scorer Jackie Benitez is also a threat, averaging 12 points per game coming in. But the guard shoots just 32 percent on the season. Another scoring threat in Kelly Koshuta, meanwhile, has been out since the second game of the season, and third-leading scorer Lexie Barrier hasn’t yet played in the WNIT and appears to be done as well.
Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah, Northwestern’s starting center and one of the best rebounders in the country, will be primarily tussling with Kayla Cooper-Williams in what will be a matchup to watch underneath. Cooper-Williams averages 10.1 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per game despite often being in foul trouble, largely mirroring Akpanah’s defensive capabilities while providing less on the other side of the ball.
Given the caliber of the two defenses, this should be a grind-it-out game. The home court will give James Madison an edge, and coach Joe McKeown and his staff will have to game plan around capable three point shooters in Smalls and Benitez, typically a tall task for his “Blizzard” defensive scheme.
But the Wildcats are beginning to fire on all cylinders offensively, getting to the line more than ever and allowing the relentless effort of Akpanah to fuel them on the offensive glass. With the size of the two teams roughly the same across the board and Northwestern possessing a few more offensive weapons than the Dukes, it’s tough not to see the Wildcats as holding a slight edge.
(All stats in this piece courtesy of Her Hoop Stats)
Tipoff: 6 p.m.
Location: Convocation Center (Harrisonburg, Virginia)
Radio: WNUR Sports (link to the broadcast on wnursports.com)
Online: Stretch Portal: https://portal.stretchinternet.com/jmu/portal.htm?eventId=524436&streamType=video
Betting line: Northwestern +4.5, O/U 111.5 (via 5dimes)