A familiar feeling was setting in as Ohio State's Kelsey Mitchell stepped up to the line with less than a minute to go. Despite a combined 41 points from Nia Coffey and Christen Inman, Northwestern women's basketball was staring at a fourth consecutive loss in the Big Ten and yet another major setback to its NCAA Tournament hopes.
Mitchell calmly hit both free throws to put Ohio State up 6. For the fourth time in Big Ten play, Northwestern had blown a fourth quarter lead. In short, Northwestern’s fall from being a secure tournament-bound team at the end of December to an NIT team has been absolutely stunning. What on earth has happened?
After Northwestern's loss to Indiana last Sunday, a reporter asked head coach Joe McKeown about his thoughts on the losing streak. McKeown paused. An awkward silence radiated from the podium and filled the room. The silence went on for a few seconds before McKeown spoke, but the frustration from him and the players was palpable. Northwestern had lost back-to-back close games in which, from a talent standpoint, it was the better team on the floor.
Northwestern has four of the best offensive players in the Big Ten with Nia Coffey, Ashley Deary, Maggie Lyon and Christen Inman. All four rank in the top 25 in the conference in scoring. You cannot doubt the talent in Northwestern’s starting lineup. The upset against Ohio State showed that Northwestern can play with the very best teams in the country when everything is going well.
But things just aren’t going well. The team has been hugely disappointing. After these two losses, Northwestern now needs a semi-miraculous run to make the NCAA Tournament. The loss against Ohio State was a huge missed opportunity to get Northwestern back into relevancy. Having started conference play with a 2-7 record, Northwestern essentially cannot lose a game for the rest of Big Ten play.
Maybe it’s just bad luck. If Maggie Lyon had not fouled out against Penn State, Northwestern could have closed that game out. If Minnesota's Rachel Banham had not turned into Steph Curry, the Wildcats probably would have won that game as well. If Ashley Deary hadn't turned the ball over at the end of the Ohio State game, perhaps Northwestern could have pulled off another upset.
But Northwestern’s late-game execution has been lacking in its close defeats, and the team has looked overmatched when playing elite teams like Michigan State and Maryland. Northwestern is also last in the Big Ten in free throw percentage, shooting at a 67 percent clip. Lastly, while the team has been somewhat unlucky in close games, the defense down the stretch has been as effective as a plastic bag floating in the wind.
"If we aspire to make a run in the second half of the Big Ten, we’ve got to defend," McKeown said. No kidding.
Here’s a clip that summarizes Northwestern’s Big Ten form thus far:
That Ashley Deary pass to Nia Coffey should have been one of the plays of the game, but it was immediately erased by a terrible defensive play. Not only does Maggie Lyon get stuck in no man’s land and lose track of the Indiana player, she does it on one of the most important possessions of the entire game. That has been happening all too often for Northwestern this season.
Perhaps Northwestern’s reliance on four players to carry the team has been its downfall. Northwestern’s four starters may be tiring down the stretch. They have routinely been poor in the fourth quarter. Against Indiana, Northwestern gave up 33 points in the fourth alone. Ohio State scored 26 on Northwestern despite trailing for much of the game.
Northwestern’s defense has been bad throughout games, but during the fourth quarter the problem becomes pronounced. Northwestern’s lack of depth has contributed to this problem, even as Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah starts to earn more minutes as the fifth starter. Maya Jonas, Jordan Hankins and Lydia Rohde are just not capable of playing significant minutes in the Big Ten right now, and it continues to hurt the team.
But all these points have been repeatedly made throughout the season. Unless something changes dramatically, there does not seem to be a solution in sight. Northwestern’s current lineup is not a good defensive unit without Lauren Douglas and Alex Cohen. Thus, Northwestern must score enough points to survive its defensive lapses and poor rebounding numbers.
The issue is that Northwestern has also gone completely cold from the field. The Wildcats are 11th in the Big Ten in field goal percentage and 12th in three-point percentage. They're shooting 29 percent from three in Big Ten play, and are also last in the conference in free throw percentage. While Northwestern’s offensive output has been good from a total points perspective, that is aided by Northwestern’s up-tempo pace. Although overall per-possession stats for women’s basketball aren't recorded, Northwestern’s offense would probably look poorer than expected.
Despite a 2-7 start to the season and four consecutive losses, there is a sense that McKeown and Northwestern will be able to turn the season around. In last week’s USA Today Coaches’ poll, the Wildcats received 19 votes while the two teams that just defeated them both received none. McKeown is a legend in college basketball circles, and the reputation that he has quickly built at Northwestern has kept NU in the conversation despite the product on the court.
But McKeown and the coaching staff deserve some blame for how the team has underperformed this season. While the defensive problems seem unsolvable, it should not be this bad. The defense has been shaky since the Purdue game, yet nothing has really changed on the court. Northwestern still can’t execute its zone effectively, and has barely adjusted.
Unfortunately, McKeown’s best option is to just run the starters out there for the entire game. Northwestern cannot hope to outscore opponents with its bench. The reserves and underclassmen, other than Kunaiyi-Akpanah, haven't developed.
In the end, this team may not have the talent to reach the standards from last season. McKeown has built this program from the ground up, and this season may just be part of growing pains along the path to sustained success. Next year, with two highly-rated centers entering the program along with Coffey, Deary and Inman returning, Northwestern could return to its 2014-15 success. But right now, this team has too many structural problems to make the NCAA Tournament or finish in the top six of the Big Ten. Northwestern has been slightly unlucky, but the overall quality of the team has more to do with its recent slide.