Northwestern's five-game winning streak started with a statement. The Minnesota Golden Gophers entered Welsh-Ryan Arena Feb. 1 at 17-4 (6-3 in conference) and were less than a week removed from the AP's top 25. The Wildcats ran the Gophers off the floor in a 70-49 annihilation sparked by the play of senior center Alex Cohen.
Cohen picked apart Minnesota's zone by finding its soft spots, dishing through passing lanes and running the baseline for mid-range jumpers. On top of her 14 points on 7-11 shooting, Cohen collected nine rebounds, four steals and three blocks. And she did it against Amanda Zahui B., Minnesota's 6-foot-5 center who was recently named one of 20 front-runners for the Wooden Award, college basketball's equivalent of the Heisman.
In Big Ten play, Cohen is averaging 9.6 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game. She's also hitting more than 40 percent of her three pointers and 80 percent of her free throws. The best play of her career is coming at the right time, since Lauren Douglas suffered a leg injury in January and foul trouble issues have accentuated NU's lack of depth. Cohen's elevated role during this stretch has enabled her special skill set to shine.
"She’s a really unique post player because she can shoot threes, she’s a really good passer, she has guard skills," coach Joe McKeown said. "I think she’s a hard match-up for some of the more post-oriented players in our league because it’s hard if she can step out to 20, 25 feet and be productive."
Cohen's pass first, unselfish mentality on the court is also reflected off the floor, where she continues to put others before herself through promoting autism awareness. Last week Cohen was named to the 2015 Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) Good Works Team, which featured just five female Division I athletes.
"I feel very honored to receive this," Cohen said. "It’s such an incredible opportunity to go to the Final Four and participate in the service project and just be recognized for the work I’ve been doing. Obviously, I don’t do the stuff I do for this award, but it’s very cool to represent Northwestern and to make an impact in people’s lives."
Cohen has been involved with Northwestern's chapter of Autism Speaks U since her freshman year. She was president of the organization during sophomore year and vice president last year. Cohen's brother has autism, and she said he's a huge factor in what drives her work.
During her sophomore year, Cohen got the idea for a new initiative. She moved into the role of vice president so she could focus more of her time on putting together an event called NU Goes Blue. Attended by many members of the Northwestern and Chicagoland communities, the gala raised $20,000, which was donated to Autism Speaks.
Cohen also helped plan Northwestern's sixth annual Autism Awareness Game on Dec. 7. The contest between Loyola and Northwestern at Welsh-Ryan Arena opened on a ceremonial tip-off with the Chicagoland Chapter of Autism Speaks. In 21 minutes on the floor, Cohen racked up 14 points, four rebounds, four steals and three blocks.
The Bayside, WI, native is consistently stuffing the stat sheet like never before. In her first two seasons as a Wildcat, Cohen played just over 10 minutes per game and scored less than three points per outing. After improving her production to 6.5 points and 4.3 rebounds per outing in her junior season, Cohen's reaching her full potential as a senior.
"I feel like I'm finally in a role that I'm comfortable in," Cohen said. "Just playing with the group that we have right now has been really great this year."
That group of Wildcats is performing at a higher level than any other Joe McKeown squad has at Northwestern. Standing at 19-6 and 9-5 in conference, the Wildcats are incredibly close to securing an NCAA tournament bid.
The path to this point hasn't come without trials. Foul trouble and lousy rebounding hurt NU during the first half of conference play. Injuries plagued the team during the last several weeks, and more often than not, the Wildcats are playing from behind. However, Cohen hasn't missed a beat.
Having played in all but three games in her Northwestern career, Cohen remains the cornerstone of NU's frontcourt. Nia Coffey and Lauren Douglas provide plenty of scoring prowess and physicality on the boards, but Cohen brings a unique combination of size, vision, outside shooting and a remarkable feel for the game.
Currently, she's being honored for her off-the-court contributions, but it won't be until next year that we recognize how integral Cohen was to Northwestern's success on the court.