With every passing game, Joe McKeown's Northwestern Wildcats look more and more legit. And with every win, Northwestern women's basketball's potential NCAA Tournament résumé looks more and more impressive.
The Wildcats (11-1, 1-0) tipped off Big Ten play on Sunday in East Lansing looking for their first win at Michigan State in over 20 years, and that's exactly what they got. Nia Coffey had 15 points, Christen Inman pitched in 13, and NU held off the 20th-ranked Spartans for a gutsy 61-57 victory.
Northwestern led for nearly the entire game. McKeown's team surged to a 15-point lead midway through the second half, and every time Michigan State asked serious questions of the Wildcats, they responded.
Inman hit a few big shots to quell Spartan momentum. Then, with the lead down to four late on, Maggie Lyon, who had struggled for much of the afternoon, stepped up and knocked down a crucial three-pointer. Northwestern made just enough shots to win.
NU was propelled by its defense though, which held Michigan State to 29 percent from the field and 21.4 percent from beyond the arc. The Wildcats were active, scrappy and aggressive. They also held the Spartans' two leading scorers, Aerial Powers and Tori Jankoska, to a combined 23 points on 9-35 shooting, both well below their season averages.
Balance was key for Northwestern, as it has been so far this season. Six NU players averaged more than 8 points per game coming into Sunday, and five of them eclipsed that mark against Michigan State.
Northwestern also came up huge from the foul line down the stretch. All seven NU players made at least one free throw, and they collectively shot 13-14 (92.9 percent) from the line.
The Wildcats certainly were not at their best. They were sloppy at times on offense, turning the ball over 15 times and missing numerous layups, and they struggled to contain MSU, the top rebounding team in the conference, on the glass.
But that makes the win, on the road against a top-20 team, all the more noteworthy. Northwestern's push for the program's first NCAA Tournament berth since 1997 is off to a great start.
The Wildcats return to action on Thursday when they take on Wisconsin at 1 p.m. CT at Welsh-Ryan Arena. NU will look to move to 2-0 in the Big Ten.