INDIANAPOLIS -- When the game seemed to be slipping away for Northwestern, freshman forward Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah grabbed ahold of the lead and refused to let go. With four minutes remaining in the twelfth-seeded Wildcats' second round matchup with No. 5 Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament, head coach Joe McKeown subbed Kunaiyi-Akpanah onto the floor with four fouls. She immediately picked up a missed Northwestern shot and got the offensive board. Two possessions later, Kunaiyi-Akpanah rose from the floor and somehow wrestled the ball away from two Gopher defenders. Then she did it again.
Those three rebounds allowed the Wildcats to hold the ball for over a minute of the game clock, and an Ashley Deary steal on the ensuing Minnesota possession ended up giving Kunaiyi-Akpanah a chance to ice the game at the line. After coming into the game shooting 47 percent from the line, she hit both free throws, en route to Northwestern's 84-74 upset. The freshman finished with an energy-filled 8 points and 14 rebounds (7 offensive) in 19 minutes of action.
"Whenever they didn’t block me out I just took the opportunity," she said. "We did not want to go home today. That just made me want to play 10 times harder than I usually do."
For most of the game, the Wildcats seemed to battle not only Minnesota, but the pessimistic narrative that had developed over the season. After starting the year ranked among the nation's best, Northwestern finished the regular season at just 15-15 overall and 4-14 in the Big Ten. But every trend from this season was turned on its head and ejected from Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Thursday afternoon. Northwestern had lost two close games to Minnesota in the regular season and was on short rest after a dramatic overtime victory over Wisconsin on Wednesday. The odds were not in the Wildcats’ favor. And they did it all without Maggie Lyon, the team’s second-leading scorer, who missed her second consecutive game with an injury.
"We definitely watched those games lots of times over. It was personal…because we’ve been beat[en] twice [by Minnesota]," junior Allie Tuttle, who grabbed 6 boards in 12 valuable bench minutes, said.
One of the other big narratives of this season has been the heavy minutes for Northwestern’s four best players — Lyon, Deary, Christen Inman and Nia Coffey — and the comparative lack of experience on the bench. While Deary, Inman and Coffey paced the Wildcats on Thursday, Northwestern would not have hung on against Minnesota without contributions from role players such as Lydia Rohde, Jordan Hankins and Tuttle. Lyon’s injury forced McKeown to go into his bench and it responded with a mixture of energy and poise.
For example, Hankins, a freshman guard, missed four games this season with an injury and did not get much playing time when healthy. Thursday, she hit two threes in the first half and played 15 minutes.
"I talked to a couple coaches and they helped me to keep my confidence during the season. One of them brought up [Duke star] Grayson [Allen] and I looked up his highlights. I just looked for things to keep me encouraged," Hankins said. (Allen played sparingly for Duke as a true freshman last season before erupting for 16 points in the national championship.)
Hankins also closed out the game at the line with six made free throws.
"They [Minnesota] probably had no idea of my free throw percentage. I actually love being at the free throw line," Hankins said. "When I was younger on one of my AAU teams…my coach yelled ‘this what we live for’ …and from then I knew I had to hit free throws and I hit ‘em. Ever since then I’ve stressed them."
Coffey, who continued her stellar season with a 25-point, 12-rebound performance, recognized the contributions of Hankins and co.
"All of our freshmen are doing an amazing job of stepping up right now. Amber [Jamison] played amazing yesterday. Jordan just took her opportunity, she played well. Pallas is doing her job," Coffey said.
Tuttle had been averaging just 5.6 minutes per game. But against Minnesota, she played 12 crucial minutes in the second half when Kunaiyi-Akpanah got into foul trouble.
"It’s no secret the Pallas gets like, half of our boards, so from the get-go I was trying to not let the gap between her and me be too big," Tuttle said. Tuttle scored a basket immediately after checking in and played her role to perfection, pulling down boards and clogging up the lane on defense.
Those contributions inspired Northwestern on its way to its most energetic rebounding performance on the season. The team hunted down misses and loose balls with reckless abandon. In a season plagued by rebounding issues, Northwestern out-rebounded Minnesota 54-42.
Among the outliers, one trend did hold true: Northwestern’s three best players were dominant, as they have been for much of the season.
Deary was everywhere on the court and lived up to her reputation as Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Deary ended up 1 assist short of a triple-double as she added 10 rebounds to her 9 assists and 12 points. As is usually the case, she attacked every loose ball and bothered Minnesota star Rachel Banham all afternoon, finishing the game with 4 steals.
As a team, Northwestern did a good job defending Banham after getting absolutely torched by her in the first two games, including a 60-point night. Banham still finished with 26 points, but she was only 3-of-14 from three and had a tough time getting to the basket consistently.
"I'm not happy," Banham curtly remarked after the game.
Inman, Deary and Coffey switched on Banham repeatedly, and she seemed bothered by Deary's constant pressure. It was an off day for Minnesota's star player, but credit Northwestern's defense for stepping up.
"Getting to her early, trying to show a lot of people, trying to switch out on things, trap her, try to get the ball out of her hands...they're all great theories. But she is also capable of making those theories backfire," McKeown said. "I didn't feel like she had a lot of opportunities by herself, and that's what we wanted to do."
Minnesota's other players also had tough shooting performances. Carlie Wagner shot 7 of 20 from the field and the team shot as a whole shot 27 percent from three. Northwestern did well to contests shots and stop Minnesota from getting open opportunities off rebounds.
Offensively, Nia Coffey did Nia Coffey things. With Lyon out, she picked up the brunt of the scoring. When Minnesota was making a run in the second half, Coffey scored 9 straight points for Northwestern to keep the Wildcats in the game.
Inman added 3 threes and shot 7 of 17 from the field. She was an ideal two-way shooting guard in this game and matched Minnesota’s loaded backcourt with ease. Inman and Coffey, along with Hankins kept Northwestern in front with their hot shooting from deep. The trio combined to go 7 for 15 from beyond the the arc.
The Wildcats will face No. 4 seed Indiana on Friday in the tournament quarterfinals. Northwestern lost a close game to the Hoosiers after leading in the fourth quarter earlier this season, but if Thursday's win was any indication there is no doubt that Northwestern can continue to defy the narrative.