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Preview: Chippewa women aim to maintain balance in road game at NIU


Detroit senior Micaela Kelly dribbles the ball during the home game Jan. 6 against the Akron Zips in McGuirk Arena.

Central Michigan's balance was too much for Buffalo. 

With all five starters in double figures for CMU's women's basketball team, coach Heather Oesterle was able to offset any anxiety that came with a Buffalo run with the confidence in each of her options on the floor. 

Northern Illinois is the next challenger to knock CMU (7-2, 4-0) from the Mid-American Conference unbeaten, NIU (4-5, 2-2) will host the Chippewas at 7 p.m. Jan. 13 inside the NIU Convocation Center in Dekalb, Illinois. 

The Huskies, led by sixth-year coach Lisa Carlsen, come into the game at 2-2 in conference play. The Chippewas lead the series 37-22 and won both matchups last season. 

Here are three notable storylines surrounding the matchup:

Can NIU keep up?

Coming into the matchup, CMU ranks second in MAC scoring. While NIU ranks fourth, its defense ranks ninth in points allowed. The defensive struggles are emphasized by the fact that the Huskies rank below the 25th percentile nationally, per Synergy, in several categories where the Chippewas excel offensively. 

One area where the Huskies have done well defensively is against the outside shot. NIU ranks second in the MAC in 3-point defense, behind only CMU. The Chippewas counter that strong defense with their plethora of shooters, especially senior guard Maddy Watters -- who shoots 55 percent from 3-point range, good for third in the MAC. 

CMU is tops in the conference in offensive field goal percentage and second in 3-point percentage. While the Huskies are second in defending beyond the arc, they're eighth in overall defensive field goal percentage. The Chippewas throw five weapons at their opponents, forcing them to pick and choose who to focus on. Against Buffalo, senior forward Kyra Bussell was left open a variety of times thanks to a focus on the guards. Expect similar actions from the Huskies. 

There's also the question of tempo. The Huskies have an average of 87 possessions a game, while the Chippewas play a bit slower averaging only 81. That said, the Chippewas have been much more efficient and score nearly a point per possession. If the Huskies want to play faster, they'll have to match CMU's efficiency. 

The emergence of Maddy Watters

After serving as an integral part of the offense with her spot-up shooting abilities in her first three seasons, Watters has taken her offense to another level in her senior campaign. Her scoring average is in double figures, her best mark, and she's scored double digits in each of CMU's last four games. 

Watters is in the midst of the best shooting spurt of her career. She's the perfect component in CMU's offense, serving as an outlet when teams choose to crash when senior guard Micaela Kelly drives or double Bussell. Her consistent shooting takes the Chippewa offense to another level. 

Watters is also playing the best defense of her career. Opposing players are shooting 32 percent against her, including just five-for-24 on 3-point attempts. After missing the season opener at Michigan, a game in which the Chippewas suffered their worst defeat of the season, Watters has emerged as a top option for the team on both ends.

In the win over Buffalo, Watters set season highs in points (21), rebounds (six), minutes (40) and steals (2). Her presence is another for opposing defenses to watch for, as it will pull a defender away from an attacker such as Kelly or low post like junior forward Jahari Smith. 

Youth against experience

While the Chippewas return all five of their starters -- including three seniors -- the Huskies return just two. NIU has three seniors of its own, yet those options don't have nearly the experience that CMU has. The Chippewas have dominated this matchup recently, winning the last 10 games. 

When the Chippewas have needed someone off the bench, they feel confident in turning to redshirt sophomore Annika Weekes to play. With Weekes along with redshirt juniors Kalle Martinez and Sophia Karasinski, the Chippewas have an experienced bench.

The Huskies' top scorer has been sophomore guard Chelby Koker, who is averaging 20.3 points per game. Koker played in 30 games last year but started just three, and only played over 30 minutes once. The most experienced option NIU has at its disposal is senior forward Rachel Blackwell, who has started half of her team's games and averages 24 minutes.

NIU's head coach, Lisa Carlsen, is looking for her first win over CMU. In her first five years, she's had to deal with the Chippewas being among the best at the mid-major level. This year's group is no different, and it will be a challenge that the Huskies will be hard-pressed to overcome.