The No. 8 Terps never trailed Sunday, but their 62-50 victory in Evanston, Ill., was far from the dominant performances they have put together of late. That just might be a good thing for them, though, because points have come so easily for the top-scoring team in the nation that there can be some value in having to find a different way to win. The Terps’ defense has picked up in recent games, and the 50 points they allowed were a season low for the Wildcats.
“Road wins are precious. . . . This was not an easy game for us today,” Maryland Coach Brenda Frese said. “You can face a team like this in the NCAA tournament. This is why we love the fact that we’re going to have played everybody in Big Ten play, in case we see Northwestern again in the tournament. Just finding a response and especially on a night when we didn’t have our best game collectively as a team. Great teams find other ways.”
Maryland (19-2, 15-1 Big Ten) has two regular season games remaining to lock up the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament and win a sixth regular season title since it joined the league in 2014. The conference announced Sunday that Maryland’s postponed Feb. 7 game at No. 12 Michigan would be made up Thursday, giving the Terps another shot at a notable win over a highly ranked team. The NCAA’s Division I women’s basketball committee released its top 16 ranking Sunday and listed Maryland at No. 6. A win over Michigan and a possible run through the Big Ten tournament could bump Maryland up a seed line in the minds of committee members.
In the meantime, Maryland can secure the outright regular season conference championship with wins in its final two games against Michigan on Thursday and against Penn State on Saturday. Second-place Indiana (16-4, 14-2) is a game behind with games remaining against Iowa and Purdue.
Against Northwestern, the Terrapins set a season low with their 62 points. They began the day averaging 9.2 made three-pointers, 12th most in the nation, but they were 0 for 7 from three-point range in the first half and finished just 2 for 13.
They shot 39.7 percent overall and committed 14 turnovers, but the defense held the Wildcats to 30.2 percent shooting overall and an identical 2-for-13 mark from deep.
“We wanted to stop the penetration,” Maryland sophomore forward Diamond Miller said. “[Northwestern guard Veronica Burton] was doing a good job driving, and we wanted to stop her. We were just focusing and digging and playing Maryland defense to the best of our abilities.”
Maryland led just 30-27 at halftime, but the Terps used a 9-0 run, including five points from sophomore forward Mimi Collins, at the end of the third quarter to extend the lead to 10. That proved too much of a deficit for the Wildcats to overcome, and a pair of late Collins layups ended any hopes of a rally.
Collins posted the third double-double of her career, finishing with 18 points and 10 rebounds as she dominated down low while the Northwestern defense did a good job limiting Maryland from the perimeter. Miller overcame a slow offensive start to finish with 17 points and 10 rebounds. Katie Benzan hit a crucial pull-up three after Northwestern had cut the lead to 49-45 midway through the fourth quarter, then Miller had a highlight-reel layup as she Euro-stepped through three defenders and finished with her left hand to push the lead back up to nine.
Sophomore point guard Ashley Owusu had an off night for Maryland but still had 10 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.
“It was an amazing night,” Collins said. “But it was also just understanding that I have weapons on this team. We’re all 11 strong. Northwestern has great guards, and they were just trying to deny our guards, but we still kept on attacking. It just opened up for all the bigs inside, especially for me.
“It was just, basically, me having a field day. Plus, I don’t mind hitting people. I love it. I grew up with two older brothers. So me playing football and running into people all the time, that’s just my field day.”
Burton led Northwestern with 15 points and seven rebounds, while Lindsey Pulliam chipped in 13 points and six rebounds.
Frese thought her players were fatigued in their fourth game in nine days, including the past five days on the road. But with even bigger games ahead, she was thrilled to see them find a way to persevere.