EVANSTON – Well that was unexpected. Northwestern women's basketball used a huge first half and 24 points from Maggie Lyon to pull the 86-82 upset over No. 5 Ohio State Thursday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
Northwestern came out like a team possessed using a quick 10-3 run in the first minute and a half to force and early Ohio State timeout. The Wildcats would not slow down however, led by Lyon who hit her first three shot from downtown and had 11 points at the end of the first quarter.
This hot shooting was combined with some of the best defense Northwestern has played all season, as they held Ohio State to only 16 points in the first and led by 11.
The Wildcats kept the momentum going into halftime by played a similarly dominate second quarter. Forcing turnovers, boxing out, hitting threes, all the things that had gone wrong against Michigan State were suddenly going right. Even more importantly Nia Coffey was getting anything she wanted and had 17 points on 8 of 14 shooting at half.
The third quarter was a bit of a different story, Ohio State, who came out flat and was caught off guard early seemed to find their second gear and began to cut into the 18 point lead. But Northwestern weathered the storm thanks to the continued great play of Coffey and surprise additions of Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah.
Northwestern hung onto its lead, which was cut to 12 entering the fourth quarter, but Ohio State was beginning to find their groove. Things continued to get worse for the Wildcats as Nia Coffey was hurt early on in the quarter and unable to return.
The rest of the team picked it up without their star player however and managed to continuously hold off the Ohio State attack. Kelsey Mitchell began to take over, but Northwestern made enough plays down the stretch and Mitchell missed just enough three pointers for Northwestern to hold on. Fittingly Maggie Lyon sealed the game that she started so well, hitting 1 of 2 from the line to make her Northwestern's leading scorer and ice the upset victory. This win was Northwestern's first win over a top-5 team since January 12, 1996.
Northwestern has been desperately searching for an answer at the five all season. But after Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah's amazing 14 points and 14 rebounds against Ohio State, Northwestern may have finally found its solution. Kunaiyi-Akpanah played 31 minutes and was a major part of Northwestern's defensive resurgence in the first half.
Kunaiyi-Akpanah was unreal on the boards in this game. She would get rebounds over the heads of some Ohio State players and somehow not make enough contact to get called for a foul. Her offensive game has looked shaky all season, but in this game she finished clinically at the rim and took Nia Coffey's place in the offense respectably when Coffey left the game. The best comparison for Kunaiyi-Akpanah's performance is, honestly, Dererk Pardon's 28-point game against Nebraska. In both cases, a freshman came in and looked like an experienced veteran on the glass and in the paint. In both games, their contributions were crucial in deciding the game.
Northwestern turns up the defense
Against Ohio State, Northwestern had its best defensive half of the entire season. Ohio State's formidable offense was held in check as the team forced 9 turnovers and held an Ohio State team averaging over 90 points per game in its last eight games to just 30 points. The defense was anchored by Nia Coffey and freshman Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah inside, as Northwestern forced Ohio State into tough perimeter shots and long three-pointers. Coffey struggled defensively in the paint against Michigan State, but she played with renewed intensity.
It's been the biggest problem for this team all season, but today the rebounding seemed to be Northwestern's biggest advantage. Kunaiyi-Akpanah was dominate down low and the rest of the team chipped in as well, every starter had five or more rebounds. What changed from games in the past was the intensity at which Northwestern was boxing out, even from Ashley Deary. Every Northwestern player was looking to box out after every Ohio State shot and it made the difference.