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Northwestern and Ohio State put on yet another show in Evanston

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Frankly, the last three meetings between these teams are why we watch sports.

It’s hard to make a good trilogy.

Sure, three-part epics like the Lord of the Rings and Ali versus Frazier can be critically acclaimed blockbusters, but for every successful set, there’s a disastrous project lurking around the corner. Sometimes the third leg just can’t live up to expectations, like The Godfather Part III. Sometimes an entire trilogy just falls apart, like the Star Wars prequels.

Northwestern vs. Ohio State in women’s basketball, c. 2016-2017, has been a damn good trilogy. It started when a struggling Northwestern team stunned the fifth-ranked Buckeyes 86-82 in Evanston last January, continued through a crazy 76-73 win for Ohio State in Columbus later that month, and ended with a wild encounter that saw No. 11 Ohio State eke out a 94-87 win on Tuesday night.

From Northwestern holding off Ohio State with Nia Coffey out in the fourth in Game 1 to Kelsey Mitchell scoring 26 points in the second half to storm back against Northwestern in Game 2, these games have been unbelievably fun. This iteration of the trilogy, while not as dramatic (one could consider it the Return of the Jedi of the series, if you will), still had its share of insane moments:

  • Ohio State’s Kelsey Mitchell hit two ridiculous threes from NBA range, left the game with an facial injury in the third quarter, and then knocked down a three immediately after coming back. She also vaporized Lauren Douglas with a crazy juke late in the game and finished with 33 points.
  • Both teams combined to shoot 25 from 56 from three and hit 16 threes in the first half.
  • Freshman Abi Scheid scored a career-high 20 points and simply refused to miss, hitting all seven of her shots. She single-handedly kept Northwestern in the game on both sides of the ball and was a rebound short of a double-double in a performance reminiscent of Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah’s breakout game against OSU last season.
  • Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff got a technical in Welsh-Ryan for the second consecutive game.
  • Ohio State entered the final 3:33 up by 13 and Northwestern proceeded to rip off an 14-4 run to make it a one-possession game, because of course. Northwestern was also down by 12 at the half but refused to go away.

“Just the level people played at tonight — it was fun to watch,” Northwestern head coach Joe McKeown said. “If you’re a fan of women’s basketball, that’s a fun game to watch. If you’re a fan of defense and rebounding like coaches are, it can get a little frustrating at times.”

But what does make these games so entertaining, exactly?

Is it the unstoppability of Ohio State star Kelsey Mitchell that hangs like a three-point shooting Sword of Damocles juxtaposed with the versatile inside-out game of Nia Coffey? Is it that Northwestern freshmen seem to have career games whenever Ohio State comes to Welsh-Ryan? Is it the spectacle of underdog Northwestern teams giving Ohio State a run for their money for seemingly no apparent reason? Is it the complete lack of defense on both ends?

“They’re definitely an up-and-down team, but that’s what we like to do too,” Northwestern point guard Ashley Deary, now the Big Ten’s all-time leader in steals, posited. “We like to push in transition, so two transition teams results in a fast-paced game.”

One reason is that the narratives are endless. Large school basketball powerhouse against private school up-and-comers. Physical play and midrange shots against a point guard with Stephen Curry-esque range. Even the two coaches, McGuff and McKeown, are old rivals from their days at Xavier and George Washington, respectively.

In the end, as always, the answer is a combination of all these factors and more. After another stellar contest, all we can hope for is another meeting in the Big Ten Tournament.

This time around, Northwestern played its best offensive game of the season and still came up just short. For a team that struggled to do much on offense against Nebraska and Gonzaga, Northwestern sustained the hot shooting from its 76-60 win over Purdue. While the defense left a lot to be desired, Northwestern won’t be facing a powerhouse offense like Ohio State every game, and the huge offensive production will be much appreciated.

Of course, the unexpected star of the game was Scheid, who was simply outstanding on both sides of the ball. With Coffey having an off night from the field (6-of-24), the Wildcats received the huge offensive boost they needed from Scheid.

“Yeah she was 7-for-7 from the field...I think the mistake I made was not getting her more shots,” McKeown said. “Her confidence level you can see...she’s not afraid to shoot now and hit big threes.”

For those who have watched the team regularly though, you could envision a breakout performance coming for Scheid. She’s been one of Northwestern’s best players for some time despite coming off the bench, and she’s logged considerably more minutes than Oceana Hamilton and Allie Tuttle, who have started in Scheid’s stead.

It was inevitable that Scheid would make an impact on this season, given her skill set as a 6-foot-2 forward who can shoot, but it could soon get to the point where she deserves recognition alongside Northwestern’s heralded trio of seniors (Deary, Coffey and Inman) and the ever-present Lauren Douglas. Her 13-point performance against No. 16 Florida was key in Northwestern’s victory, and while she hasn’t showcased her offensive abilities much this year — it’s hard to get too many shots with three fantastic seniors around — today proved Northwestern has another reliable contributor.

Whether that proves to be enough for Northwestern to return to the NCAA Tournament, ostensibly the goal for this season, remains to be seen. The Big Ten is once again wide open after Maryland and Ohio State, and Northwestern has shown the potential to be, quite frankly, the third-best team in the conference. The Wildcats certainly played like the third or fourth-best team tonight, and this weekend’s showdown with No. 3 Maryland should give us a better indication of this team’s talent.

“I think it should give us confidence,” McKeown said when asked about the long-term outlook of the team’s performance. “I think if we use it correctly, we’ll learn something as a team and understand the top of this league is where we aspire to be.”

Sure, Northwestern will probably be 2-2 in conference play after the Maryland game barring a stunning upset, but Northwestern does not have to play Brenda Freese’s Death Star of a team nor Ohio State again after this weekend. The Wildcats have two wins banked, an important result in this topsy-turvy conference. The 12 games after Maryland will define this team’s tournament résumé, and if Northwestern brings its recent offensive proficiency into the rest of conference play, its record should speak for itself.

As for the trilogy, it’s unlikely we see such heights in the near future. Coffey, Inman, Deary and Lauren Douglas will be gone next year. Ohio State will graduate key starter Shayla Cooper. It won’t be the same without Deary’s swiping at Mitchell or Coffey battling with Cooper in the paint. But make no mistake, it was very, very fun while it lasted.