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Northwestern women’s basketball faces its toughest stretch yet to close out the regular season

To be the best, you have to beat the best.

Amit Mallik

As Northwestern women’s basketball (13-5, 11-5 B1G) approaches the postseason, only two matchups remain between the Wildcats — both against ranked opponents. Currently slotting fourth in the Big Ten standings, the ‘Cats will need to prove themselves against the conference’s best to earn a competitive seed in the Big Ten tournament and a bid to the NCAA Tournament.

On the slate for NU is No. 8 Maryland, who they will face this weekend before rounding out the docket against No. 12 Michigan in Ann Arbor. After going 2-1 against three of the conference’s worst teams and getting swept by Nebraska, these two matchups are crucial for impressing the higher-ups and revitalizing any hopes for some hardware in the coming month.

Despite forcing Illinois to turn the ball over on more than one-third of their possessions, the ‘Cats did not put up a convincing performance on either end of the floor. The Illini outscored Northwestern by 10 and eight points in the first and fourth frames, respectively, as McKeown’s offense struggled to finish their shots. The ‘Cats defense looked promising, causing an overwhelming 29 turnovers compared to 13 caused by Illinois. Fortunately, it was double-digit performances by both Veronica Burton and Lindsay Pulliam as well as a promising eight points from freshman Paige Mott that sealed the deal in the end.

Nonetheless, there are still some key problems McKeown and his squad will have to take care of before taking on two of the conference’s top teams.

Up first are the Terps on Sunday, a team that has done nothing but impress this season. Leading the conference at 18-2 (14-1 B1G), Maryland has arguably the best offense in the country — they rank first in points per game with an average of 93.2, all while harboring a top-five field goal percentage as well (49%). They also have four players averaging double-digit performances, the likes of which include last year’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year and Tournament MVP Ashley Owusu.

One thing to note about the Terps, however, is that their one conference loss came against Ohio State at the end of last month, whom the ‘Cats beat by 12 points just a week later. While Maryland’s defense is not nearly as impressive as their offense, Northwestern is often the opposite. If the ‘Cats can find a way to keep themselves consistent at the basket and wrap Owusu and her teammates up in the blizzard defense, this could be a relatively competitive matchup.

Unlike with Maryland, Northwestern has some recent film to go over before they face Michigan for the second time this season on March 6. The Wolverines dominated that matchup back in early January, beating the ‘Cats by 21 points as Naz Hillmon shone in her usual fashion with a double-double of 26 points and 12 rebounds. However, despite causing 20 turnovers, the ‘Cats made only around one-third of their shots compared to Michigan shooting twice as accurately.

The bottom line is, Northwestern is going to have to pick it up on the offensive side of the ball if they want to keep up with both Maryland and Michigan’s scoring capabilities. This means that Sydney Wood, Jordan Hamilton and the freshman duo of Mott and Anna Morris will need to step up in the paint and take some of the pressure off of Pulliam and Burton. If Northwestern keeps doing what it’s doing defensively and corrects its offensive deficits, they could impress in their final stretch and carry some much-needed momentum into the postseason.