Women’s Basketball: Jaeschke and Smith face off in Thursday’s battle of top post players

Danny Daly

In most conferences, 6-foot-5 center Amy Jaeschke would have a significant size advantage down low. In the Big Ten, the junior is constantly fighting for position with players at least as big as she is.

“It’s a unique situation,” coach Joe McKeown said. “Everybody’s got somebody that can play down there. Not many leagues have that many really good post players.”

Northwestern’s trip to Illinois presents another challenge for Jaeschke: 6-foot-3 senior Jenna Smith, who tops the Big Ten in rebounding and ranks third in points per game. The Illini got the best of the Wildcats twice last season, with Smith outscoring Jaeschke in both meetings.

The left-handed Smith’s versatility and ability to stretch the floor make her a difficult matchup.

“She’s really athletic, so she’s able to block your shots easily,” Jaeschke said. “It poses a problem for me because I have to be more conscious to make more pump fakes to get her up in the air and draw fouls.”

In addition to Jaeschke and Smith, the conference features Ohio State junior Jantel Lavender, the two-time defending Big Ten Player of the Year, and Michigan State senior Allyssa DeHaan, a 6-foot-9 giant who is the league’s career blocks leader.

While it’s undoubtedly a grind to play such physical opponents on a regular basis, it also forces the centers to stay on top of their games.

“The posts are phenomenal in this conference,” Smith said in October at Big Ten Media Day. “That’s the best thing about the Big Ten-that’s what makes you better. We always have contact. You just have a sense of pride that you have to take each and every game, like, ‘I’m not going to let them outwork me.'”

Each post player boasts a different skill set, meaning the centers must constantly make adjustments on both ends of the floor. That experience is valuable for postseason play, and it contributed to the Big Ten’s improved showing in the NCAA Tournament.

“It helps tremendously,” the 6-foot-4 Lavender said. “It’s like you can’t be hit with anything you haven’t been hit with.”

The conference had three representatives in the Sweet 16, including the Lavender-led Buckeyes, who lost during the first weekend each of the previous three years.

Preventing premier post players from taking over the game depends on the defense’s success in denying them the ball. For the conference’s smaller athletes, that’s a tall order.

“It’s a good thing I don’t have to defend them,” Michigan guard Veronica Hicks said.

“We think about that every time we prepare for a conference game. We know there’s going to be an inside presence. We really plan on pressuring guards so they can’t get it inside as easily.”

Jaeschke noticeably wore down as last season went on, struggling to create space inside with little help from the perimeter. The emergence of junior point guard Beth Marshall and freshman forward Kendall Hackney is keeping defenses more honest, and Jaeschke is making the most of it.

Against Smith and a last-place Illinois squad, Jaeschke has a chance to demonstrate her improvement offensively and defensively.

“She’s much more patient, more comfortable,” McKeown said. “One thing she doesn’t get enough credit for is she’s one of the top post defenders in the country. She plays great position defense, she blocks shots, and she doesn’t foul.”

[email protected]