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Northwestern survived against Wisconsin, but can the Wildcats advance past Minnesota?

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Tristan Jung

INDIANAPOLIS -- The season hung in the balance at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Northwestern, seeded twelfth, found itself down 10 points with 15 minutes remaining against Wisconsin. Maggie Lyon was out with an injury. Nia Coffey had four fouls. The team had gotten torched defensively all afternoon by the Badger's Michala Johnson. Northwestern’s offense had ground to a halt and had not scored for five minutes.

Then, from downtown, a spark came out of the darkness. First Coffey hit a three. But then Wisconsin, the No. 13 seed, answered with a three of its own. Then the Wildcats' Lydia Rohde immediately answered back. From that point on, Northwestern was back in business.

The Wildcats retook the lead midway through the fourth quarter on an Ashley Deary three-pointer and from then on, the game was basically a coin flip. Christen Inman hit a game-tying layup with 22 seconds remaining, but Wisconsin called timeout with potentially the final possession of the game in its grasp.

Then, strangely, Wisconsin failed to take that chance. The ball never advanced within the three-point arc and Wisconsin failed to even get a shot off before time expired. Northwestern survived but faced an overtime period without Coffey, who had fouled out late in the fourth quarter. So it was Amber Jamison who was called onto the floor for overtime despite scarcely playing this season.

"We kept rotating people in. We played five guards at one time … I think the biggest thing with that group was we didn’t turn the ball over. We got good shots," Northwestern head coach Joe McKeown said on the non-Coffey lineup after the game.

But with less than a minute remaining, Jamison hit her first shot of the game, a long two-pointer from the left elbow, to give Northwestern a two-point lead that it would not relinquish. Of course, there were a few more speed bumps along the way. Deary missed a key free throw late. Wisconsin's Rachel Bauman, a 90-percent free throw shooter, missed on the other end. On the ensuing possession, Jamison come up big again with a key block that finished off the Badgers.

"She knocked it down when she got the opportunity. She was a big outside presence. She made a big block at the end of the game. And so she just came in and did what she needed to do," Deary, who scored 16 points in the game, said about Jamison.

In the end, Northwestern prevailed thanks to timely shots and good three-point shooting. The Wildcats will need much more of that if they want to defeat high-powered Rachel Banham and No. 5 seed Minnesota on Thursday afternoon.

The first problem for Northwestern will be dealing with the loss of senior Maggie Lyon, Wildcats' second-leading scorer. Lyon was ruled out of the team's first-round game with a lower-body injury just before tip off, and her condition for tomorrow is to be determined. McKeown declined to answer any questions on Lyon’s health in the post-game press conference. Lyon, though, was wearing a boot on her left foot.

If she is not available, Northwestern will have to reconfigure its offense once again against a Minnesota team that scored 95 and 112 points against the Wildcats in their two meetings this season. Coffey bore the brunt of the scoring load against Wisconsin, but her efficiency suffered as a result. She shot 8 for 23 from the field and got into foul trouble. Rohde was okay in relief of Lyon, but she did not contribute nearly as much as Lyon could have. Inman played very well down the stretch, but when she is cold from the outside, Northwestern’s offense does not function.

Minnesota is not very good defensively, but keeping up with Rachel Banham's and Karli Wagner’s scoring output will be very difficult without Lyon in the game. Those two stars average a combined 48 points per contest. Wisconsin is one of the worst offensive teams in the Big Ten and Northwestern still had huge trouble containing the Badgers on defense for much of the game.

At the very least, Northwestern will need to shoot as well from three (38 percent) as it did against Wisconsin in order to defeat Minnesota. Considering Northwestern’s three-point percentage was 30.2 percent this season, that will be a tall order. If Lyon is out, the onus to stretch the Gopher defense will be put on players like Jordan Hankins and Rohde, who scarcely played this season. While they were able to prevail against Wisconsin, Minnesota is a different matter entirely.

"I’m still trying to figure out what happened today … but we had two incredible games with Minnesota, like BTN classics of whatever station. So I think tomorrow will be the same," McKeown said. Those two games McKeown mentioned were a 95-92 Northwestern loss in Minnesota, which had nothing on a 112-106 double overtime loss in Evanston when Banham poured in 60 points.

Northwestern’s offense just doesn’t space the floor as well without Lyon on the court. Rohde is a dangerous shooter, but her dribbling skills and catch-and-shoot ability are not as advanced as Lyon's. Wisconsin was able to easily hold Northwestern by playing a simple 2-3 zone. Northwestern figured it out eventually, but the team is liable to go cold at any point during the game without the proven deep threat that Lyon is.

Defensively, Northwestern’s shaky interior defense did not look very different, but Minnesota’s third-ranked scoring offense will be much more effective than Wisconsin's. Banham has 92 points in her two games against the Wildcats, while averaging 30.7 points per game and is shooting 44 percent from three in Big Ten play.

But that does not mean it’s impossible for Northwestern to pull off a stunning upset, just rather unlikely. Both of the previous games against Minnesota went down to the wire, and Coffey matches up well against Minnesota’s starting lineup. If she can have a more efficient game on offense along with contributions from Rohde and Hankins, Northwestern could make the game interesting even without Lyon. If Lyon plays, previous experience has shown Northwestern and Minnesota are just about even. Northwestern may not be able to stop Banham, but it can still emerge victorious tomorrow.

PREDICTION: Minnesota 85, Northwestern 73