The Northwestern women's basketball team played its lone exhibition game on Sunday against NAIA squad St. Xavier, and exhibition is the operative word, because the final score wasn't even close: a 91-37 win for the Wildcats.
Now, they gear up for their official season opener, next Friday against the University of Tennessee-Martin.
Northwestern will be led this year by four seniors, including 6'4" forward Kendall Hackney, who was an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection last year. Hackney, whom you might have seen singing the national anthem before some men's and women's games, was the Wildcats' leading scorer last season with 15.2 points per game, good for eighth in the Big Ten.
When she arrived in Evanston four years ago, she was among the first wave of talent that head coach Joe McKeown brought to Northwestern to begin the program's revival, having been crowned Ohio's Ms. Basketball and ranked as the 55th best prospect in the country by ESPN HoopGurlz. Hackney actually originally committed to USC, but when the Trojans' head coach resigned, she reopened up her recruitment, and Northwestern ended up being her destination.
As the team's primary offensive weapon, she'll try to bring the Wildcats to their first NCAA tournament berth since 1997. I had a chance to talk to Hackney recently about the team and its outlook for the season.
SoP: I know you guys just started practice. How are things going?
KH: They're going great. It's been nice to have the freshmen in and getting reps and learning our offense and defense. I think we're off to a good start.
SoP: Let's look back a little bit at last year. You guys got off to a great start in nonconference and then struggled a bit in the Big Ten season. I know you guys had a lot of injuries. What's going to be different this year?
KH: Yeah, last year, unfortunately we lost girls to serious injuries that took them out for the entire season. They were leaders too, like Brittany Orban and Kate Popovec. So we were low in numbers, but we were really lacking in the mental toughness aspect of the game. So this year, that's going to be a major focus for us, because the Big Ten is obviously a tough conference and we want to do well in conference. That's our goal, to win the Big Ten and to get to the NCAA tournament. For us to do that, we have to focus every game. So, I think, just mentally our focus has to be really there. I think we're doing better on that than we did last year.
SoP: Talk about the Italy trip. I saw on Youtube, looks like you guys were having a good time on the trip, a great bonding experience for you guys. How is that going to help this season?
KH: Yeah, we were really excited about it. Obviously it's a great advantage to start practice early this summer and then getting to go on such an amazing trip. It was such a great opportunity for us. The team chemistry was huge. That's going to be a great building block for us and give us a leg up going into the season because the freshmen got a little acclimated earlier into our offense and how we run things. It was just such a great experience. I mean, you're going to Italy, how can it not be a wonderful team bonding experience for us?
SoP: You guys lost Morgan Jones to transfer, and Tailor Jones, Brittany Orban and Allison Mocchi graduated. How are you guys going to fill those holes?
KH: We have a solid group of seniors. There's four of us, including myself, and Kate and Dannielle [Diamant] and Inesha [Hale]. We all have a lot of experience under our belts. We learned a lot from the leaders last year and the years before, from girls like Amy Jaeschke and Beth Marshall being leaders to us when we were younger. We've got a great set-up, with freshmen who can contribute, the sophomore and junior classes have a couple of key players, and then you have the seniors who have played a lot. I feel we have a great balance, experience-wise, so that's going to help us a lot.
SoP: You guys made the WNIT for a couple of years, and then you guys got close last year. Do you guys have what it takes to make the postseason again, and could there be a NCAA tournament run?
KH: I really do think we have what it takes to make the NCAAs this year. That's the goal. You want to make the postseason. The WNIT is a great tournament, but you really want to be in the NCAA tournament. We don't want to settle for less. I talked about the mental toughness aspect. That's going to be a key aspect for us this year. We've had bits and pieces of it, but not completely put it all together for a full season. With the Italy trip, that's just building up to a great season for us. Hopefully we can stay healthy. All the things are coming together. For me, it's my last year, and I want it to be a meaningful, special season for us. I want my team to win. It's going to take a lot of hard work, but we're all willing to do that.
SoP: For you personally, your first few years, there was Amy Jaeschke as the go-to scorer. Then she graduated and last year, you had to step up as the top scorer. Have you had to adjust your game at all as the primary scorer, with defenses concentrating on you?
KH: Yeah, it's been an adjustment for sure, and the coaches have been working with me to find ways of getting open, with the ball or without the ball. With Amy Jaeschke, I didn't have to worry about that as much, because the other team would have like five people collapsing on her. But yeah, I've been working on being confident in taking people off my dribble and looking for my teammates to dish off to if the defense collapses on me. With the personnel that we have, we're looking a lot different this year, being able to attack more off the dribble, which is something we haven't been able to do as much in the past.
SoP: The Big Ten is always loaded, and it's going to be loaded again. How's the conference look to you this year, and where does Northwestern fit in?
KH: I feel like a lot of teams lost key players to graduation, and there's a whole new class stepping up this year. It's definitely going to be interesting to see how things pan out. For us, I think the conference looks wide open. I think everybody's on an even playing field right now. The key for us will be getting out of that 7th or 8th slot, which is where we've tended to fall into. We really want to get out of that and get into that upper half.
SoP: You originally committed to USC and then came to Northwestern. What brought you to Evanston?
KH: Northwestern came up out of the blue. I wasn't really looking here originally. But after I got out of my letter of intent, it was spring of my senior year, so I didn't have a lot of time. I had a couple of schools interested that were contacting me. It kind of fell into place where it ended up working out best location-wise. I'd known coach McKeown from before and I knew he was coming in to rebuild this program, and I wanted to be a part of that. It's been great to be here for that. It was just kind of a step of faith for me, but it's been amazing. I've loved it here. I love the school. It's been awesome, playing in the Big Ten, all the places we've been able to go. It's definitely been the right decision.
SoP: What are you majoring in and what do you hope to do after graduation?
KH: I'm a communication studies major with a music concentration. After school, I'm not 100% sure, but I'd like to look into going potentially into sports broadcasting. I'd love to be in the sports world. If I could stay in the broadcasting world, or if I could pursue something with music, either one, I'd be extremely happy. Being here at Northwestern has brought me a lot of opportunities to network. I've met a lot of people I'd have never met otherwise, who are willing to help, which is a huge blessing, so I'm looking forward to that. Yeah, it's wide open right now, but I'm hoping to narrow things down. I don't know yet. Just want to win this season and enjoy it.