Welsh-Ryan Arena was nearly empty as Northwestern began its final basketball game of the 2015-16 season. But for the regular attendees of Northwestern women's basketball games, a familiar feeling started to sink in. The San Diego Toreros, a team that finished third in the West Coast Conference, flew halfway across the country and opened a double-digit lead early in the game. After Northwestern amassed just 7 points in the third quarter, the game was all but over. The Wildcats were down by 18 heading into the fourth. Northwestern played like a talented but flawed team for the entire season, and this game was no different. And now the season was ending, somewhat fittingly, with a disappointing home defeat in an eerily quiet arena.
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But what a crazy season it was. Northwestern was a consensus top 25 team in preseason. The team rose to as high as No. 12 in the AP poll, and was still at No. 16 on January 4. The team appeared to be a lock for the NCAA Tournament. Then, a disastrous run of Big Ten defeats drove the team to the bottom of the conference and onto the Women's NIT bubble. Then, Northwestern won three straight games as the 12-seed in the Big Ten Tournament before losing in the semifinals to Maryland. Finally, Northwestern ended the season with a first round defeat in the Women's NIT against a WCC team.
In the San Diego game, the Wildcats' flaws caught up with them. Northwestern was out-rebounded by San Diego. Northwestern’s offense could not hit enough shots to stay in the game. Nia Coffey played well, as usual, but she did not receive enough support. The team's immense individual talent failed to translate to overall team quality.
In 2015-16, the team’s flaws came on both sides of the ball. Northwestern’s offense became wildly inefficient when compared to 2014-15, as its shooting percentage and three-point percentage fell by more than three percent each. In fact, while Northwestern attempted 166 more threes in 2016 than in 2015, the team dropped from fourth to last in three-point percentage.
Northwestern played an aggressive, up-tempo style and attempted more shots than any team in the Big Ten by a significant margin. Despite this, the team was only sixth in the Big Ten in scoring offense. While per-possession stats were not collected, it’s clear that Northwestern’s offensive efficiency nosedived in Big Ten play until the Big Ten Tournament.
Defensively, the team got torched repeatedly by Big Ten teams, especially late in games. The Wildcats’ lack of rebounding and an interior presence left them helpless at times.
Northwestern also did not have enough players to repeat the huge successes of last season’s NCAA Tournament run. It’s hard to maintain an up-tempo style for an entire game even with a full bench. Northwestern did not have anywhere near a full bench for most of the season. With Alex Cohen and Karly Roser graduating, and without Lauren Douglas, the team’s depth was weakened at the start. Maya Jonas went down for the season midway through the year and compounded Joe McKeown’s problems. It took the entire season for players like Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah, Jordan Hankins and Allie Tuttle to develop into serviceable options. Meanwhile, the team continued to play an up-tempo style that allowed for easy transition points and tired out Northwestern’s starters by the fourth quarter.
The team’s undefeated streak at the beginning of the season offered some hope, but those non-conference wins were against tiny mid-majors and one bad power conference team in North Carolina. And Northwestern did not even beat some of the bad teams convincingly. It went down in the fourth quarter to Eastern Washington. Loyola-Chicago and East Carolina kept the Wildcats close. When the Big Ten season came around, Northwestern was exposed by better teams.
To be fair, the team was still unlucky to go 4-14 in conference play. The Wildcats probably should have won at least three or four close games that all went against them. With four quality players in Coffey, Ashley Deary, Maggie Lyon and Christen Inman, it's hard to lose 11 of 13 games without some flukey defeats. But still, that would leave Northwestern at a 6-12 or 7-11 record in conference, which would have been enough for the Women’s NIT but likely nothing more. This team just was not built to go as far as we predicted at the beginning of the year.
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In the fourth quarter of the San Diego game, Northwestern started to fight back. Shots started falling, the defensive intensity picked up, and suddenly the lead was down to single digits. In the fourth quarter, Northwestern outscored San Diego 35-21. The Wildcats scored more points in 10 minutes than they had for the entire game. San Diego struggled to hold onto the ball as Deary led Northwestern’s defense into attack mode. The rally fell just short, but Northwestern was able to avoid an embarrassing blowout.
Northwestern’s style of play allowed for these stretches of incredible performance throughout the season. In the first half against then-No. 7 Ohio State, Northwestern blew the Buckeyes off the court in a fast-paced assault. In the second half, Ohio State was able to come back with ease as the Wildcats started to cool off. In the Big Ten Tournament, Northwestern escaped with a win against a bad Wisconsin team, and then played its two most complete games of the season against Minnesota and Indiana. The team played with an intensity that we’d seen flashes of during conference play. Indiana coach Teri Moren said the Wildcats had a "different kind of urgency".
In truth, Northwestern had that urgency for the entire year. Deary set the all-time Big Ten single season steals record and was Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. It’s not like she turned it up for the Big Ten Tournament alone. Coffey dominated teams in the Big Ten Tournament, but she averaged 20.3 points and 9.8 rebounds per game over the course of the year. Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah is an incredible talent on the boards. She did not drastically change her rebounding intensity or abilities during the Big Ten Tournament, even though she grabbed critical offensive rebounds to close out games.
Given how the rest of the season went, it’s hard to see how the Big Ten Tournament was an example of everything lining up perfectly for Northwestern. The Wildcats avoided Michigan State and Maryland until the semifinals. The offense shot better from three and from the field. Minnesota and Indiana’s best players both had uncharacteristically poor shooting performances. Northwestern finally started getting some luck and playing better. The Wildcats also finally developed a bench, which was key in securing all three victories.
Northwestern’s late-season heroics certainly offer some hope for the future. The team that played in the Big Ten Tournament is the team that will return for next season, along with two four-star centers to help Northwestern’s interior defense and rebounding. Coffey, Inman and Deary are coming back for one more run. Meanwhile, the bench players that broke through during the Big Ten Tournament will return with more experience. There is still optimism for this team.
However, while it’s impressive that the Wildcats finally came together late in the season, that should not overshadow the team’s regular season struggles in 2015-16. Calling the season an colossal disappointment would be a mistake. The preseason polls had Northwestern overrated. The team just did not have the pieces to put together a complete season, even as it showed flashes of brilliance in one or two games. But 4-14 in the Big Ten is a disappointment, even if not a colossal one. Perhaps next year will be different, but this year was one to (mostly) forget.