EVANSTON - That’s why they play the whole game.
In this year’s iteration of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, the Northwestern Wildcats (6-1) came back from an 18-point deficit to stun the Virginia Cavaliers (5-2) with a 69-60 victory Thursday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
Nia Coffey led the game in scoring and recorded her fourth double-double of the season with 29 points and 14 rebounds. For Virginia, Lauren Moses led the way with 16 points and 6 rebounds.
“Just a hard fought, tough game, physical game, a lot of runs on both ends,” head coach Joe McKeown said. “I just love the way we came out in the third quarter, we talked about how the second twenty minutes were now more important than the first twenty and I think we came out with a sense of urgency.”
In the first quarter, both teams got off to a hot start from the field, as Northwestern started 6-for-9, and Virginia started 4-for-7. Both teams were hitting from deep as well; 12 of Virginia’s first 15 points came from downtown and 6 of Northwestern’s first 12. One of those was a three from Christen Inman in her first game back from an upper body injury.
“It was great, I was just dying to get back on the court with my teammates,” Inman said. “It’s hard just sitting on the sidelines and watching so it was a great game to get back in and play.”
The rest of the first quarter was a sloppy affair as both teams combined to turn the ball over 9 times, with three coming on Nia Coffey travels. UVA cooled off a bit from the field, but thanks to Northwestern’s turnovers were only down one at the end of the quarter. 10 minutes into the game, Northwestern led 18-17.
Both teams continued the disorganized play to start the second, but the Cavaliers were able to reorient first and began hammering the basket. Virginia ripped off a 16-4 run in the second quarter and took a 33-22 lead. After starting 2-of-4 from three, Northwestern missed its next six and went completely cold from the field.
Out of a timeout, Northwestern managed to cut the deficit to seven. A quick timeout from head coach Joanne Boyle worked wonders and the Cavaliers ended the half on a 6-0 run to take a 39-26 halftime lead.
“Part of it was Virginia’s defense, part of it was we had some good looks, and then we settled instead of really attacking,” McKeown said. “We had four or five travels, things that we normally don’t do in that quarter that put us in a hole.”
At the half, Virginia was shooting 54 percent from the field and 40 percent from three, while Northwestern was shooting 46 and 20 percent respectively. Dominique Toussaint had 11 points at halftime, while Nia Coffey led Northwestern with 9.
The start of third quarter was more of the same for the Wildcats, as Virginia scored five quick points to go up by 16. However, the tide began to turn after Nia Coffey finally got to the line with 7:47 left in the quarter. After hitting both free throws, the Wildcats followed up with a 9-0 run highlighted by a Lydia Rohde three that forced Virginia to hastily call a timeout up 44-35.
Out of the timeout, Virginia managed to hit a quick three to briefly stop the floodgates, but Rohde answered with a three of her own to keep the deficit at 10. But by this point, the Wildcats had all the momentum, using another Coffey-fueled 9-0 run and stifling defense to cut Virginia’s lead to just 4 points.
“I think we just put more pressure on the ball, made it a little tougher for them to make it into the lane with the ball which they were doing at will in the first half,” McKeown said. I think it was more positioning and more ball pressure. We changed some of our schemes a little bit, but I think our players, they just bought in.”
Northwestern continued to scythe through Virginia’s defense as Coffey scored the team’s last six points to increase the run to 13-0 and tie the game. After losing the second quarter 22-8, Northwestern won the third 23-10, setting the stage for a pivotal fourth.
“It started with our defense, “ Coffey said. “We just weren’t very aggressive on defense in the first half, so we just really stepped that up, and then we were just patient on offense and we just attacked them and got to the line.”
The fourth quarter started exactly the way Northwestern wanted it, as Virginia missed its first two shots and the Wildcats took the lead on a layup from Coffey with 8:50 left. Northwestern continued its run from the third quarter, led by 12 straight points from Coffey, increasing it to 19-0 and taking a 55-49 lead.
After going almost eight minutes without scoring, Virginia responded with a quick 4-0 run via free throws to cut the Northwestern lead to two. Inman immediately answered with a three and the Wildcats lead was 58-53 with five minutes left. After Virginia answered with a free throw, Abi Scheid scored four points to put the lead at eight.
“At that point that they cut it to two we never really thought that they had the momentum, so I think we were just trying to keep playing hard,” Inman said. “We knew this game was ours, and that play was just a part of it, knowing that this game was something that we were going to take.
With two minutes left, Lauren Moses hit a layup for Virginia, ending an exactly 12-minute drought from the field for the Cavaliers. The shot cut the lead to six, but that was as close as the Cavaliers would get. Northwestern took back-to-back charges on defense and iced the game at the line for the 69-60 victory.
The Wildcats improve to 6-1 on the season and now have two solid non-conference wins. Northwestern’s next game is against Chicago St. on Sunday, December 4th at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
Last year’s Northwestern team would not have come back from that 18-point deficit. After a frustrating season last year, where Northwestern constantly went down big early and faded away late, the offense showed a consistency and calmness during the massive comeback (a 29-5 stretch!) that was absent in 2015-16. The defense also turned up the pressure, something that last year’s team just couldn’t do in close games.
Virginia certainly played very poorly in the second half, but Northwestern’s vastly improved mental resolve was also a huge factor.
Northwestern struggles from three, until it doesn’t
Northwestern has struggled with perimeter shooting all season and it hurt them early on against UVA. With the Cavaliers double and triple-teaming Nia Coffey in the paint, Northwestern had to win the game through outside shooting. Coffey was able to get her share of points, but none of them were easy. Meanwhile, Northwestern shot just 20 percent from three-point land in the first half and struggled to generate offense. However, Northwestern finally started to hit shots, as Lydia Rohde hit two huge threes during Northwestern’s comeback and Inman hit another three midway through the fourth. Those shots salvaged Northwestern’s shooting night and the game.
Turnovers a problem early, then near-perfection saves the game
Northwestern was sloppy with the ball early, falling victim to four traveling calls and a few loose passes. Northwestern had 12 turnovers early but when the comeback really got going in the third it was able to clean it up. For the next ten minutes, Northwestern had just 2 turnovers and the offense reeled off an extended 29-5 run. When the Wildcats take care of the basketball, the offense just runs immeasurably smoother.