The Northwestern women’s basketball team is still undefeated, and it might stay that way for awhile. After winning all three games of their trip to the Lone Star Showcase, Northwestern moved up to No. 15 in the AP Poll, and the Wildcats have solidified their status as the third-best team in the Big Ten.
Prior to the Lone Star Showcase, Northwestern had comfortably beaten its non-conference opposition in three dominant appearances at home. However, NU was finally tested in the first game of the Showcase, as the Widcats held on for a tough 74-70 victory against Eastern Washington. Joe McKeown's team then crushed Creighton 75-52 before securing a dramatic comeback 78-75 victory against East Carolina. Last season, Northwestern went 10-0 before losing its first game of the season, and this team has the potential to improve on that mark after its performance in Texas.
Here are some thoughts from Northwestern's last three games:
Should Joe McKeown and Northwestern be worried about two close games against mid-majors?
East Carolina and Eastern Washington aren't women's basketball powerhouses, but Northwestern had some trouble beating them last weekend. The Wildcats had been destroying lesser competition at Welsh-Ryan Arena prior to the tournament, but its inability to keep that pace up in Texas looks concerning.
NU was outscored in the fourth quarter against both ECU and EWU and showed some defensive vulnerabilities that had been absent through the non-conference homestand. The Pirates outscored Northwestern 18-11 in second-chance points and won the rebounding battle 49-34. Rebounding was also an issue against Eastern Washington, and Northwestern’s lack of size on the boards may continue to be a problem in Big Ten play.
However, no one should be overreacting to some shaky games at the beginning of the season. Northwestern still has a lot of talent, and did emerge victorious from both close games, which is all that really matters. The rebounding issue will probably linger for the rest of the season, but the Wildcats were able to succeed in spite of below-average rebounding numbers last season.
Northwestern’s offense is averaging 79 points a game, and the four main starters are all averaging 15 points or more per game. The team still has a very good chance of going undefeated in non-conference play, and may not lose a game until mid-January. The toughest game is against North Carolina in Chapel Hill tonight, but the Tar Heels just lost at home to the Pacific Tigers last week so Northwestern should be heavily favored to win this game. There’s no need to panic right now. As long as the team gels by Big Ten play rolls around, it should be fine.
Who will get the most minutes outside of the four main starters?
For now, Christen Johnson has been starting games as Northwestern’s "center", but she received only 13 minutes of play in the East Carolina game compared to Maya Jonas’ 22 minutes off the bench. McKeown played his four main starters -- Ashley Deary, Nia Coffey, Maggie Lyon, and Christen Inman -- heavily in the Lone Star Showcase, but he has decided to split minutes between Johnson and Jonas at the final starting spot. Both players have limited offensive potential, but they provide much-needed help with rebounding and defense. Lauren Douglas is still sidelined with an injury, but she could be in the mix whenever she returns. It will be interesting to see how McKeown changes his rotation against UNC and Big Ten foes.
Interestingly, with the ECU game on the line after a fourth quarter Pirates' run, McKeown decided to go even smaller and play Coffey as the "center" in a small-ball lineup with Amber Jamison at the final starting spot. Northwestern came back to win the game with that lineup even though Jamison did not score from the field. At this point, it’s unclear which exact lineup McKeown will use to seal away wins in crunch time.
Is Maggie Lyon out of her shooting slump?
Maggie Lyon got off to a slow start to begin the season. Through her first four games, she averaged 10.8 points per game, a drop from her career average of 13.3 points per game. She was also averaging just 18.2 percent from three-point range, compared to her 36.5 percent career mark from deep.
However, in the final two games of the tournament, Lyon broke out of her slump by going 5-for-7 from three with 21 points against Creighton. She followed that up with a critical 26 points in Northwestern's win over ECU, shooting 50 percent from the field and 42 percent from three. It's safe to say that the slump is now over. Lyon was going to find her stroke eventually, and combined with the excellent offensive abilities of teammates like Coffey and Deary, her resurgence will make Northwestern an offensive force to be reckoned with.
After tonight's North Carolina game, the Wildcats will come home to Welsh-Ryan Arena to face UW-Milwaukee on December 6th.