Last season, the Michigan women’s basketball team all but saved its season with a 71-65 win over then-No. 13 Maryland, which went a long way in ensuring the Wolverines a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Though it is just over halfway through the season, the importance of Michigan (11-5 overall, 2-2 Big Ten) visiting College Park to take on the 9th-ranked Terrapins (14-1, 3-1) cannot be overstated. Just like last year, a positive result for the Wolverines could push them over the line come the end of the season. A loss, on the other hand, could cripple their already tenuous position on the NCAA Tournament bubble.
Michigan enters the contest off the back of a hard-fought overtime win against Northwestern, while Maryland will also be riding high following an 18-point demolition of Nebraska.
The Daily breaks down the keys to Saturday’s Big Ten clash.
Michigan’s struggles away from home
It is safe to say that Crisler Center has been friendly to Michigan. All five of the Wolverines’ losses this season have been away from home and they have averaged just over 61 points and 17.4 turnovers in these road losses. In contrast, Michigan is averaging 81 points per game and 15.05 turnovers at home. The Wolverines notched a home upset over No. 12 Minnesota, but have struggled to defeat even mediocre teams away from Crisler.
In addition, with freshmen Amy Dilk and Naz Hillmon in the rotation, and only a few upperclassmen playing significant minutes, Michigan has lacked the experience needed to beat ranked teams on their turf.
“I think our message has been ‘Continue to improve, continue to improve,’ ” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “We’re trying not to look at the outcomes but to look at the process. Hopefully, our improvement in practice will result in victories. But it’s more of a focus on improvement than just results.”
Still, results matter and a win against the Terrapins would be the Wolverines’ best result to this point of the season.
Controlling the boards
The rebounding battle will also be a major factor in Saturday’s outcome.
“Maryland does a tremendous job of rebounding the basketball,” Barnes Arico said. “We have to make sure we block and hold them to one shot.”
Rebounding has been a strength for both squads throughout the first half of the season. Both Michigan and Maryland are in the top-10 nationally in total team rebounds and rebounding margin — though the Terrapins have a slight advantage in both categories.
Maryland’s only loss this season came at home to Rutgers. It is no coincidence that game is one of only two in which the Terrapins were outrebounded, giving up a season-high 19 offensive rebounds to the Scarlet Knights.
“They are big, long and athletic,” Barnes Arico said. “They really have a motor to the basketball, so we have to make contact with them. It’s going to be key for us to make sure they don’t have multiple chances.”
There are only three Big Ten players on the midseason John R. Wooden Award watch list: Minnesota guard Kenisha Bell, Iowa forward Megan Gustafson and Maryland’s do-it-all guard Kaila Charles.
At 6-foot-1, Charles possesses unique size for the guard position.
“She is an incredible player,” Barnes Arico said. “She’s really a tough matchup for anyone. She can go off the bounce, she can elevate over you, can go left or right, pull-up in front of you. She is really just an incredible scorer. We’re just going to have to keep the basketball out of her hands.”
Even though Charles’s offensive production has fallen off slightly from last season — when she was an All-Big Ten First team selection — she still leads the Terrapins in scoring and has lit up the scoresheet on multiple occasions already this season, reaching double figures in all but one game this season.
It’s no small task, but if the Wolverines are able to limit Charles’ offensive opportunities, they will have a chance to pull off the upset.
The point guard matchup
It has been an inconsistent season for Dilk. The heralded recruit has undoubtedly shown signs of brilliance in her short time at the helm of the Wolverines’ offense. And yet, as with most young players, there have been growing pains.
In recent games, her confidence and decision making have been on the rise. She had solid offensive outputs against both Minnesota and Purdue, scoring 14 and 16 points, respectively, with just three combined turnovers.
Though the offensive burden does not fall squarely on Dilk’s shoulders, there appears a clear improvement in Michigan’s offense when she looks to score.
“Her ability to score the basketball really gives us a different dimension,” Barnes Arico said. “It helps to not pack the paint against (senior center) Hallie (Thome) and Naz inside. So she has the green light on offense and is getting more and more comfortable. She has done really well for us recently.”
Dilk’s counterpart on the Maryland sideline is freshman Taylor Mikesell. Mikesell is the Terrapins’ second-leading scorer behind Charles, averaging 14.8 points per game. Dilk’s best offensive asset is her three-point shot — hitting a 42.3 percent rate beyond the arc.
Dilk will be tasked with guarding Mikesell. Job number one will be minimizing Mikesell’s opportunities from deep, an area where Dilk is quite capable. Her size and athleticism were one of the reasons she was a five-star recruit out of high school. In order to win the matchup against Mikesell, and put Michigan in a position to leave College Park with a win, Dilk will have to play smart and aggressive on offense and be mindful of Mikesell’s movements when the Terrapins are in possession.
The odds don’t favor Michigan in this matchup — especially against Maryland in its home arena. Charles and Mikesell are potent offensively, but the Terrapins run deeper than that duo. With that said, there have been a number of surprising results in the Big Ten so far this season, and the Wolverines have already pulled an upset of their own against the Golden Gophers. Despite its youth and struggles on the road, a Michigan victory against Maryland would not necessarily be the most surprising. Controlling the boards, containing Kaila Charles as much as possible and winning the point guard matchup will be pivotal if the Wolverines hope to beat the Terrapins in consecutive seasons.