Mikesell’s definition of fun has changed these days. The player who made a name in the Big Ten as a can’t-miss perimeter shooter — as a freshman, Mikesell made 95 three-pointers, a Maryland record for both men and women — is finding other people shots. It’s a perspective shift that came with her new job: The sophomore took over as the starting point guard from freshman Ashley Owusu this month.
The Ohio native has hit her stride the past two games, solving an important piece of the puzzle for No. 20 Maryland (15-4, 6-2 Big Ten) as the Terps have hit their own sweet spot.
After a turbulent start to conference play, Maryland has racked up four consecutive wins, the latest a dominant victory at Illinois on Thursday. On Sunday, the Terrapins get to test their newfound solidity when No. 22 Northwestern (17-2, 7-1) visits College Park.
The conference-leading Wildcats have a five-game winning streak, and earlier this season they handed the Terps their worst conference loss since Maryland joined the Big Ten, an 81-58 drubbing in Evanston, Ill.
This time, Maryland is catching Northwestern at a better point in the schedule.
“The chemistry is really evolving,” Terps Coach Brenda Frese said ahead of the Illinois game. “I think for our new kids, they’ve really had enough games under their belt to understand what it looks like. So, yeah, I like where we’re at right now.”
The key to Maryland’s success is its defense, which the Terps have played at a higher clip over the past four games, all convincing wins. But nearly as important is guard play.
Frese made the decision to take Owusu out of the starting lineup ahead of a Jan. 9 loss at Iowa to inject more experience into the starting rotation. Forward Stephanie Jones reentered the starting lineup, and Mikesell moved from shooting guard to point guard.
“I just felt like our experience, we needed a little bit more for conference play,” Frese said. “I think it's helped Ashley to settle in, where she can kind of watch first before she comes in. I think at times, Ashley's had a mentality of conserving, which is a youthful mentality, so I think she sees right now that she doesn't have to conserve. She's playing some of her best defense that we've had, so that's huge, and then really tried to push tempo for us.”
It took Mikesell time to settle in as well. Her scoring was down even before she switched positions — she is averaging 10.1 points in an up-and-down season after scoring 13.4 points per game as a freshman — but her past two games have been among her finest as a floor general. She dished a career-high eight assists against Indiana and had five at Illinois.
Mikesell’s job has gotten easier since Maryland shored up its defense. But Frese credits the team’s more solid guard play with helping the Terps avoid the slow starts that hampered them in losses at Northwestern and Iowa.
“Huge,” Frese said. “I really feel like for [Mikesell] and the starters, it’s like setting the tone from the tip. She’s gaining so much confidence from the point guard position and filling that role. It helps us in our starts; it helps us as a team to have that kind of confidence.”
Mikesell feels comfortable in the spot. She was a high school point guard, played the position occasionally last season and played point guard in practice this season even before she took over the starting role.
Against Northwestern, Mikesell knows it’ll be her job to both dictate tempo and help set up Maryland to strike first, two areas in which the Terps struggled in their first game against Northwestern. Mikesell, with a few noteworthy performances under her belt and a full season of experience behind her, feels up to the task.
“It’s primarily the same offense; it’s more so just being smarter,” Mikesell said of her development since last season. “I have more experience under my belt; coming in, a lot of things were new to me last year. But just being confident, reading different situations when they’re thrown to me . . . getting the feel for the game was the biggest thing I’ve taken away from last year being at [point guard].
“[Playing the position] this year is just reading the game more, the flow of the game. Being able to control the tempo is big.”