The final score might tell you otherwise, but Sunday, Northwestern women's basketball met one of the toughest tests, if not the toughest test of its young season. The 12th-ranked Wildcats were matched blow for blow by unranked Loyola, but pulled away in the fourth quarter to stay undefeated and win, 81-72.
It was also one of the Wildcats' worst games of the season as well. Northwestern started the game 0-9 from the field and only improved to 6-20 in a first quarter that ended in a 12-12 tie. Things didn't improve much more in the second quarter as Loyola led 34-30 at the break.
The Wildcats would manage to salvage the win in the fourth quarter as they outscored the Ramblers 26-17 due in part to a 10-0 run early on the quarter. While Ashley Deary and Nia Coffey were in foul trouble for most of the second half, Christen Inman led the charge, scoring 25 points, with 17 coming in the second half. Inman also had two of the Wildcats' biggest shots, completing a three-point play and hitting a three-pointer during the 10-0 run in the fourth.
In support of Inman was Maggie Lyon who had 15 points and 6 rebounds. Lyon and Inman both played the entire game. Also scoring in double digits were Deary and Coffey, who both had 13 apiece. However, Deary and Coffey both had four fouls for much of the second half.
Leading the way for the Ramblers was center Taylor Manuel, who dominated down low all day to the tune of 20 points and 12 rebounds. This continues to be a problem for the Wildcats as they have consistently had trouble guarding larger players down low. While this may not be a huge problem in non-conference play, it will certainly come up again during Big Ten play, most notably against Maryland.
Foul trouble combined with the dominance of Manuel led Northwestern coach Joe McKeown to switch up the lineups as the game progressed. Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah saw the most minutes of any non-starter, playing 18 minutes and scoring 4 points, but fouling out in the fourth as she struggled to guard Manuel in the paint. Lydia Rohde and Jordan Hankins both played double-digit minutes as well, as McKeown appears to be getting more comfortable playing his bench in important situations.
Getting the bench players more minutes will be important as the season progresses in order to keep the starters fresh for the fourth quarter. Northwestern has already been outscored in a few fourth quarters this season and while the Wildcats did win today's game in the fourth quarter, many of the starters looked exhausted. It's hard to believe that playing multiple players for 40 minutes every game will be sustainable. Having confidence in the bench now will be crucial come January and February, not to mention March.
This wasn't the prettiest game of the season, but Wildcats survived a game in which nearly everything went wrong. Their next game is in only two days against Alcorn State, so the bench will almost certainly get an extended look to keep the starters fresh for No. 18 Depaul. At the end of the day, Northwestern is 9-0 and No. 12 in the nation, but today we saw some of the problems that may cause this team to stumble in conference play.