The day before Northwestern's biggest test of the season against No. 5 Ohio State, the players and head coach Joe McKeown were not worried. Despite losing four of its last six games, including a disastrous showing Sunday at No. 18 Michigan State, the team's mood was one of confidence and excitement, not panic.
"I think we're pissed," said junior Christen Inman. "We're fired up. I don't think confidence is our issue at all... The past is the past. We can't really do anything but learn from those two games and try to bounce back as best we can."
Perhaps a midweek talk from 7-time National Champion and Northwestern women's lacrosse coach Kelly Amonte Hiller inspired the team to move on from the disappointment. Or maybe the team's captains and upperclassmen showed some veteran leadership and told the team to move forward. Whatever happened after the Michigan State game, Northwestern was able to remain resilient, and they were pumped to come back and take on Ohio State at home.
With their backs against the wall and chances of an NCAA Tournament bid slipping away, the Northwestern women put on one of the finest performances in the history of the program and defeated No. 5 Ohio State 86-82. The Wildcats had not beaten a top five team in twenty years, but they executed when they needed it most, leading from wire-to-wire in a stunning victory over Kelsey Mitchell and the Buckeyes.
"They played like a team that needed to win," said Ohio State Coach Kevin McGuff. "We played like a team that would like to win."
Clichés aside, Northwestern convincingly outplayed Ohio State in every aspect of the game. Despite the four-point margin of victory, this was definitely not your typical narrow college basketball underdog win. Northwestern came out of the gate with something to prove. The team made its first four shots and played excellent defense. Northwestern scored 10 points off forced turnovers in the first quarter to open an 11-point lead. By halftime, Northwestern was up by 20, having held Ohio State's formidable offense to just 30 in the first half.
It's hard to understate how good Ohio State has been this season. Before this game, the Buckeyes' only losses were to the top three teams in the AP Poll. Kevin McGuff's team was playing amazing offensive basketball. In its eight-game win streak, Ohio State averaged 91 points per game and its average margin of victory was over 17 points.
In the first half however, you would have never known that Ohio State was supposed to be the better team. Every problem that had plagued Northwestern to start Big Ten play and threatened its postseason future was fixed. After an uncharacteristically poor shooting performance in the loss to Michigan State, Maggie Lyon buried four three-pointers to start the game.
"We were focusing on reversing the ball and not taking the quickest shot but the best shot," Lyon said. "I got some good open looks in the beginning and it raised my confidence throughout the game."
Nia Coffey took the ball to the basket authoritatively and picked up her intensity on defense. Ashley Deary had 15 turnovers in losses to Michigan State and Purdue. She had 0 turnovers in the first half and 9 assists. After getting outrebounded in almost every game this season, Northwestern won the total rebounding battle by 11, including an +8 margin in offensive rebounding.
Of course, Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah was a huge part of that. The freshman power forward stepped in at the five tonight after playing limited minutes for the entire season. Her rebounding skills were otherworldly in this game. She picked up 14 rebounds, 7 on the offensive glass. There were moments when she was behind an Ohio State player on the offensive glass and just ripped the ball away, all without committing a foul. She also more than tripled her highest career point total, contributing 14 points in 31 minutes en route to her first double-double of her career. While she needs to work on her defensive presence, she gave a brilliant performance for a team that has been desperately searching for anyone to give consistent minutes at the five.
"One of the reasons we recruited her, obviously, was she felt like she could be a physical presence on the glass, which she was tonight," said McKeown. "She finished. she was able to score around the basket. she was poised."
Unfortunately for Northwestern, the team hit a rough patch in the second half. Although Northwestern was able to stay in front by double-digits through the third, Ohio State showed its quality and made a huge comeback in the fourth quarter. Then, three minutes into the fourth quarter, Nia Coffey went down with a left leg injury. While she was lying in pain on the offensive end, Ohio State took advantage and buried an open three to cut the lead down to six. The glory of the first half had dissipated, and Northwestern looked like it was about to blow a fourth quarter lead like it had against Penn State.
At this point, the entire season was in the balance. Northwestern was basically in an impossible situation. After the first half, the game had turned to a must-win. The Wildcats' best player was hurt, the best team in the Big Ten was making a huge comeback, and Northwestern had to somehow defend a two-possession lead for seven minutes.
Northwestern did not crack under the pressure. The team stepped up and went on an absurd 10-2 run to put the lead back to 14, propelled by Inman and Kunaiyi-Akpanah. But then, the Wildcats did begin to crack under the pressure. Northwestern had two shot-clock violations and Kelsey Mitchell scored 9 points in 85 seconds to cut the lead down to six once again. Then, on the next play, Lyon was pushing down the court but stepped out of bounds. Kelsey Mitchell had a shot to make it a one possession game, but she missed and Northwestern completed the stunning upset.
"When Nia went down, I thought Inman and Maggie Lyon made big plays," McKeown said. "Those two and Ashley kept everybody that was on the court with them in good position...and you expect that."
Northwestern is not out of the woods yet. If Nia Coffey misses significant time, this team will have major problems without its best player and leading scorer. At the time of injury it looked like she was unable to put any weight on her leg, but as of now it is still unclear how severe it really is. Northwestern also faces No. 8 Maryland this weekend, which will be a much more difficult game in terms of matchups than Ohio State, especially if they have to play without Coffey. However, Northwestern's first quality win of the season puts them in much better position to make the tournament.
This was a crazy game, and it will undoubtedly go down as one of the best moments of the Joe McKeown Era and Northwestern women's basketball history. Northwestern will have to survive without Coffey if she is out for an extended period of time, but the team's schedule does lighten up a bit after the Maryland game. Northwestern can still edge toward another NCAA Tournament bid with its current talent and more excellent play from Kunaiyi-Akpanah. Coffey can't miss more than seven or eight games, obviously, but on Thursday night Northwestern showed it has more than enough mettle to weather any storms ahead.