INDIANAPOLIS — It happened, it really happened. The 12th-seeded Northwestern Wildcats (17-15, 4-14 B1G), which entered Thursday having not won back-to-back conference games all season, upset the No. 5 seed Minnesota (19-11, 11-7) 84-74 in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
Nia Coffey led the way for the Wildcats with 25 points and 12 rebounds, while Ashley Deary almost had a triple double with 12 points, 10 rebounds and 9 assists. For Minnesota, star Rachel Banham had 26 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists, but shot 7 of 25 from the field and 3 of 14 from three.
What it means:
With the win the Wildcats advance to the third round of the tournament where they will play the No. 4 seed, Indiana, tomorrow at 2:30 ET. Northwestern also further improves its WNIT chances and prolongs the possibility of an automatic NCAA tournament bid.
How it happened:
Unlike Northwestern's matchup with Wisconsin on Wednesday, both teams came out shooting hot. Rachel Banham hit a pull-up three to score Minnesota's first points and Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah had a quick four points for Northwestern. Five minutes into the game and both teams were shooting 50 percent from the field, but Northwestern had done a great job of limiting Banham--who averages 27.7 per game--to only 3 points.
"We were really focusing on either high-hedging or trapping and just really trying to get her out of her comfort zone and trying to get the ball out of her hands," said Ashley Deary. "And I think for the most part, our team did a good job of just communicating and rotating on the help side."
Then in the next five minutes Minnesota dropped off while Northwestern continued to hit from deep. Jordan Hankins once again provided a major spark off the bench, hitting two three pointers and giving Northwestern a quick six points. One of those shots included an impressive deep three pointer right near the end of the quarter as the shot clock was expiring. Northwestern used an extended 10-0 run late in the quarter to take an 18-8 lead and ended the quarter with a surprising 21-11 lead. Due to great ball denial from the Wildcats, Banham only had 5 points on 1 of 5 shooting.
The game began to even out in the second quarter as Minnesota finally made its run. Northwestern's shooting came back down to earth as it shot 31.3 percent from the field, but it managed to hit 3 of 4 three pointers to stay in it. Minnesota made three more midway through the quarter as it ripped off an 11-2 run, featuring 7 points from Banham, to tie the game at 31. However, clutch three pointers from Lydia Rohde and Nia Coffey put the Wildcats back up by six and they would head into the half up 39-35.
"I think we did a really good job with penetrating and kicking and really setting each other up and making the extra pass, said Deary. "I think that's what got us a lot of open 3s."
Northwestern once again came out hot to start the third quarter, hitting its first two three pointers to extend the lead to 47-39 and to force Minnesota to call a timeout. Following the timeout the pace of the game entered overdrive as both teams pushed the ball up the court in transition and Minnesota finally started hitting from deep. Kunaiyi-Akpanah got her fourth foul midway through the quarter, but Allie Tuttle gave Northwestern great minutes with 4 points and 4 rebounds off the bench.
"[She] did a great job, took up space in the lane, caught the ball, finished around the basket, got some key rebounds," said Head Coach Joe McKeown. "She did a great job and, I thought, you know, at a time when we really needed it."
Northwestern out-rebounded Minnesota 17 to 8 in the quarter, which allowed the Wildcats to take a 61-55 lead into the fourth.
However, things began to fall apart at the start of fourth quarter. Minnesota went on a quick 5-0 run to start the quarter and McKeown was forced to call a timeout. After the timeout Nia Coffey took over for the Wildcats. She scored the team's next nine points, putting an exclamation point on the run with an and-1 layup to put Northwestern up 70-61.
"In March, when you have a player like that, you've just got to rely on her and just let her do her thing and give her some freedom to, you know, to make decisions in the open court, which she did and attack the rim," said McKeown. "When she gets a head of steam, she is really hard to stop."
But Minnesota would not go quietly as Banham scored the game's next seven points to pull the Gophers within two. Northwestern then answered with an Inman bucket.
What followed was two of the most impressive minutes of play from Kunaiyi-Akpanah all season. Northwestern had three straight possessions of missed shots, but Kunaiyi-Akpanah beat out three Minnesota players each time to grab the board. The Wildcats then gained a fourth possession when Ashley Deary stole the ball following a Minnesota rebound. After Northwestern went 3 of 4 from the line and allowed a Banham layup, Deary found Jordan Hankins wide open down the court to break the press. Hankins then calmly laid it in to give the Wildcats a seven point lead.
The last 30 seconds came down to free throws and the Big Ten's worst free throw shooting team was up to the task. Hankins was 6 of 6 from the line to ice the game and the upset was complete.