The Big Ten Women’s Tournament has provided plenty of thrills, chills, and spills over its first two days. Five upsets in six games.  A #13 seed like Wisconsin who won four games in two months posting two victories in two days.  Defending champ Ohio State headed home.  It’s from the ashes of this busted bracket that #8 Maryland looks to emerge as tournament champs for the fourth time in five years. What becomes more a priority in this sprint as opposed to the 18-game regular season marathon?  “Just knowing that we can never take any possessions off. Every team is trying to play hard and win a championship,” junior Kaila Charles said, “So we just gotta go in and make sure that we’re focused on the little things.”  Charles is a three-year starter and cut down the nets two years ago before watching Ohio State celebrate last March.

The Terps captured the regular season championship despite not being the hottest team in December-that would be a Rutgers team that came into College Park and won on New Year’s Eve.  Nor were they the hottest team in February-that would be an Iowa team that beat the Terps by 13.  But the Hawkeyes would stumble later that week to fall out of the tie for first (Iowa owned the tiebreaker for the #1 seed), and coach Brenda Frese’s team put together fourth quarter rallies in wins over Minnesota and at Purdue, followed by a gritty win over Illinois at home to finish one game ahead of the Hawkeyes.  “We have faced a lot of adversity in the last three games,” coach Brenda Frese said “And to be able to find a way to win has been critical to our success.”

The victory over Minnesota saw the Terps come back from 16 points down in the third quarter, finishing the night on a 9-0 run to win by two on a last-second shot from Kaila Charles.  That game also saw senior Brianna Fraser go down with a high-ankle sprain.  The forward hasn’t played a minute since and remains a question mark for the Big Ten Tournament.  “Bree is day-to-day, and I think it’s hard to stay until you turn on the lights and are able to see.” coach Frese said, “With a high ankle sprain those are very hard to be able to determine how long it’s going to take for her to truly come back-she’s yet to go through even close to a full practice.”

If Fraser can’t play, that means the bench shrinks to four players-two of which average more than ten minutes per game.  Not ideal in the rough-and-tumble conference tournament.  “It’s a lot-especially with our conference where everybody’s physical,” junior forward Stephanie Jones said. “Everybody knows each other’s scouts so you’ve gotta be prepared mentally and physically.”  Jones ranks third in the Big Ten in shooting percentage and is a reliable third option offensively behind unanimous First Team selection Kaila Charles and Rookie of the Year Taylor Mikesell.  Mikesell’s ability to play the point has allowed coach Frese to bring Channise Lewis (second in the Big Ten in assists) off the bench while being able to go bigger with 6-foot-5 freshman Shakira Austin (second in blocked shots and fourth in rebounding) moving into the starting lineup.

 

Friday’s Foe:  9th seeded Michigan State beat Northwestern 68-52 to set up a high noon showdown.  The Spartans beat the Terps in January 77-60 after jumping out to an early 16-point first quarter lead.  Jenna Allen scored 16 points that night to pace a balanced offense where four others scored in double figures.  Michigan State leads the league in three-point shooting and ranks second in scoring and turnover margin.

Other Teams and Players to Watch: Iowa’s Megan Gustafson was voted Big Ten Player of the Year after leading the conference in scoring and rebounding, and the Hawkeyes are the last team to beat the Terps.  The first Big Ten team to hand Maryland a loss this winter is Rutgers, and after an early February hiccup where coach C. Vivian Stringer’s team lost four of five the Scarlet Knights enter the tournament winners of three straight.  Purdue and Indiana pulled off upsets Thursday, if they can repeat their magic Friday we’ll have an all-Hoosier State semifinal Saturday afternoon in Indianapolis.

 

 

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