For an entire month, Northwestern was invincible. The Wildcats went 8-0 in February, fending off every foe in the teeth of their Big Ten schedule.
Then, March hit. And with it came Maryland, who was a perfect 17-0 in conference play and ranked No. 5 in the country. After a competitive first half, the Terrapins blew the Wildcats off the floor. Northwestern was out-run and out-muscled by a superior Maryland squad.
"It’s good for us to get a baseline for where we’re at against a team like that," Joe McKeown said in the post-game press conference. "We know we've got to play better."
The biggest different between a top-tier team, like Maryland, and Northwestern is the depth. While Brenda Frese was cycling in 9-10 Terrapins, McKeown only had two players coming off the bench. Worn down by a deep, well-conditioned opponent, NU shot just 29 percent from the floor in the 69-48 defeat.
"We got a little tired chasing them in the second half," McKeown said. "We’re who we are. We play seven or eight people."
One look at the stat sheet is enough to see how limited McKeown's options are off the bench. Outside Northwestern's seven "starters," Lydia Rohde is the Wildcats' top contributor in conference play with 3.1 minutes per game in 12 contests.
With that short a bench, it's amazing that Northwestern went 22-7 in the regular season. It's even more impressive that the Wildcats went 12-6 in the Big Ten, one of the country's top conferences, and managed to do so through injuries.
When Lauren Douglas was sidelined in late January, the Wildcats still beat a decent Illinois team and fell to 14th-ranked Iowa by just three. Then, Christen Inman missed three games in mid-February with an ankle injury. NU went 3-0, and they only needed eight minutes from Inman to beat a then-ranked Nebraska team in her return.
Northwestern didn't get through those stretches without its fair share of breaks. The Wildcats are 9-2 this season in overtime games and games decided by 6 points or less.
Nonetheless, it's pretty apparent McKeown's top seven are darn good. This season could've crumbled down the stretch. NU's Big Ten schedule was rather soft. Even when they were 18-6 overall and 8-5 in conference in mid-February, Northwestern was a ways away from locking up a ticket to the tourney.
There were the doubts about their depth and doubts about their ability to rebound out of the zone. Even their high-powered offensive attack was sputtering at times. Nearly all those doubts were spelled in the last couple weeks.
Northwestern beat two ranked teams in Nebraska and Rutgers. They won a tough road game against Michigan, who currently sits on the bubble. The zone was as strong as it's ever been, and different players stepped up offensively when called upon.
One loss to Maryland doesn't take away from Northwestern's body of work, nor will the postseason. No matter what happens in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments, Northwestern exceeded expectations in 2014-15 and proved Joe McKeown has transformed this program into a competitor.
Northwestern's 12 conference victories this season are just two fewer than the 14 Big Ten wins June Olkowski and Beth Combs had in their combined nine years as head coach from 1999-2008. McKeown's recruiting record reflects the on-court success too. The class of 2013 featured two players (Nia Coffey and Christen Inman) in ESPN's top 65 in the nation.
The Wildcats' 2014-15 season has been a great success. Although they'll probably run into another powerhouse, like Maryland, in the postseason, Northwestern finally has its shot to make some noise. And they are too good to count out of any game.
"We have a fearless team. I think they're resilient and will bounce back," McKeown said. "We're really competitive and we want to prove something."