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NCAAW what to watch: Big Ten keeps delivering close games; UConn, South Carolina top must-watch Thursday

Cassandra Negley
·7-min read

The Big Ten is packing the Associated Press Top 25 women’s basketball poll.

There are five teams from the conference ranked. Four teams have only one loss each in conference play. The conference as a whole leads Division I in scoring (75.0 PPG) and assists (15.8 PPG), and is second in field goal percentage (.439). Unsurprisingly then, three Big Ten teams are in the top 10 in offense.

The eye-popping stats for this conference at about the halfway point can go on and on.

Of the 36 conference games played in January, 19 of them have been decided by 10 points or less, per the Big Ten. Two of them went to overtime. And in the last two weeks it’s even more likely to be close with 10 of 17 games decided by single digits and nine of those determined in the last two minutes.

Six players are on the Naismith Player of the Year watch list and three were named to the 15-player Naismith Defensive Player of the Year watch list this week.

All this to say, the Big Ten should be on your must-watch list. The conference once again has an envious Thursday night tripleheader on the docket a week after Michigan star Naz Hillmon dropped 50 points on Ohio State in a performance LeBron James shouted out. She leads the conference in scoring (26.1 PPG) and rebounding (12.3 RPG), but the entire athletic department is on a pause this week.

It’s headlined by No. 14 Ohio State (9-1, 5-1 Big Ten) heading to No. 16 Indiana (9-3, 7-1) at 8 p.m. ET on the Big Ten Network. As the season gets deeper, the margin for losses narrows. And it’s particularly true this season where COVID-19 caused pauses can wipe out two weeks worth of games that might not be rescheduled.

In the earlier games, both available on BTN and the Fox Sports app with tip at 6 p.m. ET, Michigan State (9-2, 4-2) heads to No. 7 Maryland (11-2, 7-1) and No. 23 Northwestern (8-3, 6-3) heads to Iowa (9-3, 5-3), where freshman Caitlin Clark (25.8 PPG, ranking second) and sophomore McKenna Warnock (9.1 PPG, second) await.

While that’s happening there are two ranked matchups on the ESPN networks (is it March already?). Make sure the remote batteries are ready for this one. Here are four games to watch in week 10 of the women’s basketball season (all games are on as of Thursday morning). The full schedule is here.

No. 3 UConn (10-0) at No. 19 Arkansas (11-6)

Thursday, 6 p.m. ET on ESPN2

TEAM CATCH UP: UConn is skating through its schedule again, but was tested against fellow SEC team Tennessee last week. Arkansas upset Baylor in December, but is 2-5 throughout a tough schedule. They’re coming off back-to-back losses to South Carolina and Georgia.

It’s only the first time these two have met. The other was in 1998.

KEY PLAYERS: Arkansas is third in the SEC in overall points per game (96.0) with the trio of Chelsea Dungee, Destiny Slocum and Amber Ramirez. Dungee, a senior guard, leads all SEC scorers with 21.6 points per game is the best at getting to the free throw line with 132 attempts this season, ranking second in the nation. Dungee has made 79.5 percent of them.

For UConn, it may be who isn’t on the court. Freshman Paige Bueckers’ status is uncertain as of Wednesday afternoon. She injured her right ankle late in the win against Tennessee last Thursday — though she came back to hit the game-winning 3-pointer — and did not play against Georgetown. Coach Geno Auriemma said she has “a better chance of playing on Thursday than of not playing.” Sophomore guard Anna Makurat is out indefinitely with a lower right leg injury.

Now to who might be making a mid-season debut. Saylor Poffenbarger, who graduated high school early and joined the Huskies for the spring semester, is cleared to practice. She took part in her first practice on Tuesday after a 10-day COVID-19 required quarantine.

“She picks things up pretty quickly,” Auriemma said, via the Journal Enquirer. “I don’t know that she's game-ready. I don’t think she'll be game-ready in two days. I don’t know. At some point I'll go in the gym and I'll say, ‘I think we should put her in.’ I don’t know when that time is.”

To get her minutes this weekend would be throwing the young star into the fire. But she might just shine.

No. 4 South Carolina (12-1, 7-0 SEC) at No. 21 Mississippi State (8-4, 3-3 SEC)

South Carolina forward Aliyah Boston (4) is introduced with teammates South Carolina guard Zia Cooke (1) and South Carolina guard Destanni Henderson (3) at an NCAA basketball game against LSU in Baton Rouge, La., Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)
South Carolina forward Aliyah Boston (4) is introduced with teammates South Carolina guard Zia Cooke (1) and South Carolina guard Destanni Henderson (3) at an NCAA basketball game against LSU in Baton Rouge, La., Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)

Thursday, 7 p.m. ET on ESPN

TEAM CATCH UP: South Carolina has maintained its hold on the SEC with wins against ranked Arkansas and Georgia in the past two weeks. The Gamecocks nearly slipped against LSU but prevailed, 69-65.

Mississippi State desperately wants to get back in the win column after an eight-point loss to unranked Alabama on Jan. 14 and a 28-point catastrophe against No. 8 Texas A&M.

KEY PLAYERS: South Carolina runs off of Aliyah Boston and it’s fun to watch. The block-machine will be up against Mississippi State star Jessika Carter in the paint. She has averaged 15.6 points and 9.2 rebounds in conference play.

Keep an eye on how South Carolina guard Destanni Henderson sets her teammates up. The junior is averaging an SEC-best 5.8 assists per game along with 5.6 rebounds and 12.5 points.

Thursday extra: Alabama (12-2, 5-2) at Kentucky (11-4, 4-3) as they battle it out amid the second quarter of the SEC standings.

No. 3 UConn (10-0, 8-0 Big East) at No. 17 DePaul (9-3, 6-1)

Sunday, 1 p.m. ET on Fox

TEAM CATCH UP: The ranked matchup will be the first women’s basketball game to air on the network. UConn won the first matchup in December, 75-62.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Darrione Rogers had a 20-point, 10-rebound double-double in that game for DePaul, but was 5-for-14 from the line and 4-for-10 from 3-point range. Six points were at the free throw line. It was emblematic of the team as a whole. They shot 25 percent overall and 24.3 percent (9-37) from 3.

Sonya Morris is the team’s leading scorer (18.3 PPG, 45.4 FG%).

No. 22 Georgia (13-2, 5-2) at No. 8 Texas A&M

Sunday, 5 p.m. ET on SEC Network

TEAM CATCH UP: Georgia is already in a version of March Madness mode: survive and advance. The Bulldogs beat Tennessee by one earlier in the month and took out ranked Arkansas, 75-73, with a last-second contested jumper by Gabby Connally.

Texas A&M bounced back from an upset loss to LSU with vengeance, taking down a ranked Mississippi State squad by 28 points and narrowly getting by Missouri.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Everyone on defense. The two are in the bottom six of scoring in the conference while Georgia is one of the nation’s best on defense, allowing an average 58.1 points per game. They both rank in the top 25 in the nation in scoring margin.

Aggies forward N’dea Jones leads the SEC in total rebounds and averages 10.6 per game in conference. She’s a part of the defensive player of the year watch list.

Georgia center Jenna Staiti is a threat on the block with an average of 2.7 per game. She has three fewer than South Carolina’s Boston and average eight minutes less in playing time.

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