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Northwestern’s offense implodes in fourth, Wildcats fall to Gonzaga 67-56

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The Wildcats led for three quarters but couldn’t hold off Gonzaga in the fourth.

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Northwestern looked like a top-25 team for three quarters against Gonzaga, but the team went colder than Lake Michigan in January at precisely the wrong time.

Northwestern (10-2) faced a tough road test against a Gonzaga (8-2) team that had already knocked off two Pac 12 opponents this year. A win would have been a key résumé-builder for the Wildcats, but despite leading for three-and-a-half quarters and stretching the lead to as many as nine points, Northwestern’s offense fell apart down the stretch after Ashley Deary was forced out of the game with four fouls. Taking full advantage of the opportunity, Gonzaga muscled its way to a 67-56 victory.

The start of the game was an offensive struggle for both teams as the score read 4-3 five minutes into the first. After the media timeout, the teams picked up the pace. Northwestern jumped out to a 15-9 lead behind threes from Douglas and Deary and five points from Coffey. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, Coffey picked up her second foul late in the quarter and was taken out of the game. Gonzaga took advantage and cut the lead to 16-14 by the end of the first quarter.

With Northwestern needing to re-establish itself, Coffey quickly came back in for the second quarter and scored a layup to make it 18-14. That four-point lead would balloon to nine for Northwestern as Christen Inman buried six straight points for the Wildcats. The Bulldogs’ offense faltered on the other end and Gonzaga was forced to call a timeout. The Bulldogs responded with a 6-0 stretch that made the score 25-22.

Northwestern struck right back with six unanswered points, but a strong Gonzaga finish and a spectacular buzzer-beating three from Makenlee Williams left Northwestern up 35-30. The first half had been very good for the Wildcats, with Inman, Deary and Coffey proving to be the superior on-court unit. Amber Jamison and Lauren Douglas also contributed off the bench. But, as has happened throughout the season, Northwestern’s opponents used the three to keep the game close. Despite 11 turnovers and shooting 10-of-27 from the field, Gonzaga was still within striking distance. That inability to put Gonzaga away haunted Northwestern later in the game.

The third quarter started with a flurry of offensive action as Coffey and Gonzaga’s Elle Tinkle traded threes in the first minute. The Bulldogs would refused to fade with the crowd at the Kennel urging them on, even as Northwestern executed its halfcourt offense as well as it has all season. A three-pointer from Douglas gave the Wildcats a 46-39 lead, but Gonzaga fought right back and a three-pointer from Laura Stockton (yes, NBA legend John Stockton’s daughter) cut the Northwestern lead to 46-44 with 4:29 remaining in the third quarter.

Both offenses stuttered after Northwestern went up 48-44 on a Deary layup. Neither offense scored in the last three minutes of the quarter. The biggest upshot of the sequence was that Ashley Deary picked up her fourth foul on a charge, forcing Northwestern’s star point guard and defensive ace to the bench. All this combined to leave Gonzaga down by four heading into the deciding quarter at the Kennel.

Zhane Templeton of Gonzaga broke the scoring drought with an important three to cut the Northwestern lead to 48-47. For Northwestern, the offense ground to a halt with Byrdy Galernik at point guard instead of Ashley Deary. Northwestern would score just two points in the first five minutes of the fourth quarter. Northwestern’s offensive rhythm disappeared. Gonzaga battled and snagged a 51-50 lead on a layup by Stockton, as Northwestern could find no answers on the offensive end.

They would never find them. The five-plus minutes without a made field goal proved devastating for Northwestern. With under two minutes remaining, the offense had still only managed three total points in the fourth. Meanwhile, Gonzaga’s offense built up a 56-51 lead that proved to be insurmountable for Northwestern’s sputtering offense in the dying minutes. Northwestern just could not make a shot, with Coffey and Inman missing easy shots repeatedly. Meanwhile, the offensive movement was completely stagnant and Northwestern failed to get a decent look for 7 minutes. Deary finally broke Northwestern’s field goal drought to cut the Gonzaga lead to 59-53, but by then it was too late.

Coffey, Deary and Inman all scored in double figures, but those points were not enough to stave off the determined Bulldogs, who lived up to their name with tough fourth-quarter defense and rebounding. Northwestern was out-rebounded 46-31 and lost 16-9 on the offensive glass. The Wildcats also shot just 53.8 percent from the line on 13 attempts, another major factor in the offense’s meltdown. While the team looked very good in the first half, Northwestern’s fourth quarter struggles were reminiscent of last season. These issues must be rectified before the Wildcats start conference play if Northwestern is going to win tough games against Big Ten opponents.

In the grand scheme of things, a non-conference loss in a tough road game will not end Northwestern’s postseason dreams, but a win against a solid Gonzaga team would have been a great bonus for Northwestern heading into conference play. The Wildcats may have played just one bad quarter, but that 10 minutes makes navigating the next 17 games all the more difficult.

Northwestern heads home to face the University of Tennessee-Martin in its final non-conference game on December 22. Its first Big Ten game will be at Nebraska on December 28.