Clearly, Nia Coffey and Christen Inman were not interested in leaving Indianapolis.
The majority of the fans in Indiana-friendly Bankers Life Fieldhouse, on the other hand, would have been all too happy to see them depart. But in front of a hostile crowd, Inman and Coffey combined for 44 points to continue Northwestern’s improbable run in the Big Ten Tournament.
After playing an overtime contest against Wisconsin and exacting revenge against Minnesota, one might assume Coffey would be tired. That was quite clearly not the case. Coffey scored 19 points in the first half, highlighted by blocks on All-Big Ten guard Tyra Buss.
"She really put her team on the back today," Allie Tuttle said. "Her scoring her nice but the blocking was even better."
Coffey’s brilliance kept Northwestern in the game, as no other Wildcat managed more than 5 in the first half. Coffey was magnificent in the paint and from the perimeter as Indiana could not find a way to guard her. Other than her free throw shooting woes, Coffey was clearly the best player on the court; she wasn't afraid to bully Tyra Buss, Indiana’s best player, for the entire game.
Most times that Buss tried to get to the basket, Coffey was there to force a miss or keep Buss from shooting. She barreled into Buss on a clean block in the second quarter and forced the Indiana point guard to briefly come out of the game with a left arm injury. Buss went 4 of 18 from the field and failed to make a big impact, especially in the second half.
"We just tried to get to Buss a little earlier in the possessions and try to get the ball out of her hands at times," Northwestern coach Joe McKeown said. "We were a little more aggressive in beating them to spots and that was our goal."
"We just had to make sure that we take away her tendencies and just make every shot hard," Coffey said.
For most of the game, the second best player on the floor was Indiana's Amanda Cahill, who went for 23 points and 13 rebounds herself. Cahill’s ability to stretch the floor and dominate inside bothered Northwestern for the entire game.
Her controversial buzzer-beating shot at the end of the third quarter brought Indiana within 3 points. Apparently, Cahill had gotten fouled by Jordan Hankins before the time expired, but it looked like she did not get the ensuing shot off. The referees decided to give Cahill the basket due to continuation.
"You know, that was just a crazy shot. I don’t know if anyone can repeat that," Christen Inman said when asked about the play.
The disputed bucket ignited the mostly pro-Indiana. The sizable contingent of Indiana fans were irate at some no-calls for Buss during the game. It was, for all intents and purposes, a Northwestern road game, but the team was ready for the pressure.
"Growing up, I came to the tournament a lot with my parents and I've come to a lot of Fever games so being able to play on the same floor is pretty nice," Jordan Hankins said. "I like playing in front a big crowd."
"Honestly, I think we did a good job of focusing on what need to do. We're not letting anything outside get in," Nia Coffey said.
In their previous meeting, Northwestern fell apart in the fourth and gave up 33 points. This time, Christen Inman stepped up to make sure that wouldn’t happen.
Coffey may have owned the first half, but Inman absolutely dominated the fourth quarter. She exploded for 14 points in the fourth alone and played exceptional defense. Inman went 6 of 7 for the field and hit two free throws to seal the game with less than a minute remaining. Other than a bad turnover against Indiana’s desperate full court press, Inman played flawlessly down the stretch to ensure Northwestern’s victory. Every time Indiana scored a basket and brought the crowd back into the game, Inman answered with a jumper.
After one of the best fourth quarter performances in the history of Northwestern basketball, Inman was characteristically stoic about her performance:
"I was really just confident and I was really just trying to be more aggressive for the team," Inman said.
Ashley Deary was her usual self, notching a double-double with 12 points and 11 assists to go with 4 steals. Jordan Hankins continued to provide a spark off the bench, hitting two more threes to put her at six for the tournament. Allie Tuttle played 15 key bench minutes and scored a career-high 7 points. Northwestern continued to get high-quality minutes from a bench that failed to make an impact earlier in the season.
Now, Northwestern faces an even tougher challenge against Maryland tomorrow. Of the two top seeds, Northwestern would have probably preferred to face Ohio State, a team that Northwestern defeated at Welsh-Ryan earlier in the year and led in the fourth quarter in Columbus. Unfortunately, Ohio State blew two games at the end of the year to lose the Big Ten regular season title after beating Maryland twice, so the Terrapins are the one seed.
This iteration of Northwestern has had serious trouble with Maryland for the last two seasons. Last year’s team lost all of its matchups against Maryland and this year’s team has lost twice to the Terps as well. However, Northwestern came within 5 in the fourth quarter at Welsh-Ryan before eventually losing 79-70. Maryland started slowly but eventually dismantled Iowa in a 75-55 blowout this morning.
Northwestern’s biggest challenge will be shutting down Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, who hung 27 points on Northwestern at Welsh-Ryan. Northwestern has been able to shut down opposing teams’ best guards in the Big Ten Tournament (Nicole Bauman, Rachel Banham and Tyra Buss) but Walker-Kimbrough’s length and athleticism have been a terrible matchup for Northwestern in the past.
The team’s defense has improved by leaps and bounds in the past three games, but Maryland will again try to bulldoze its way to victory through its two centers, Briona Jones and Malina Howard. Maggie Lyon returning would bolster Northwestern's chances -- her 25 points in the loss at Welsh-Ryan were crucial in keeping Northwestern within arms distance, and she sparked a huge second half comeback that brought Northwestern back.
But at this point, can anything be ruled out for this Northwestern team? After stunning Minnesota and pulling away from Indiana, Northwestern has made a habit of defeating teams that it lost to in the regular season. Marylan presents the ultimate test, but Northwestern has the tools to pull off another upset if it plays perfectly. Unlike Iowa, who shot well for one quarter and went cold for the rest of the game, Northwestern has to have sustained shooting success.
The Wildcats will probably need another huge game from Coffey. Inman and Deary will also have to play up to the level they have been at in the previous two days and work together to shut down Walker-Kimbrough. Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah has gotten double-digits in her past two games and needs rebound well against Jones and Howard. Lastly, Northwestern will need to keep getting high-quality bench minutes from Allie Tuttle and Jordan Hankins, who came up big in this game. Essentially, Northwestern has to keep everything it’s been doing the same while also shooting better than it did against Indiana.
But given how this Big Ten Tournament has gone, anything could still happen at 2 p.m CST. tomorrow.
"I’m excited. I’m ready to play. I think we can beat them," Nia Coffey said.