Nia Coffey didn’t want to go home just yet.
Coffey had 34 points for Northwestern (20-10, 8-8 B1G) as the Wildcats knocked off No. 8 seed Iowa (17-13, 8-8) in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday. The Hawkeyes had no answer as Northwestern’s offense woke up from its month-long slump to ensure the Wildcats will fight another day.
“I think they want to go out on top. They want to prove whatever there is to prove,” head coach Joe McKeown said.
After a disheartening loss at the buzzer against Purdue, Northwestern needs a miracle run in Indianapolis to send the best class in Northwestern women’s basketball history to the NCAA Tournament. The first part of that process was to take out Iowa, a team that had blown out Northwestern 78-59 in in their last meeting. In fact, this senior class had never beaten Iowa in four years.
But it was a different Northwestern that took the court on Thursday morning. Perhaps the team just loves playing in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, having gone on a three-game winning streak to the semifinals there as a No. 12 seed last season. Maybe the seniors realized that they needed at least one more vintage performance before their Big Ten careers ended. Whatever the case, Northwestern has survived and will advance.
The game started well for Northwestern, as a quick 4-0 run set the tone on offense. But Iowa was able to battle back and took a 9-8 lead on a Disterhoft free throw four minutes in the first quarter. Iowa stretched its advantage to 13-10, 15-12, and then 17-14 by the end of the first as Northwestern struggled to hold onto the ball. The Wildcats committed seven turnovers in the first half, and the early offensive momentum had stalled out.
In the second quarter, Northwestern flipped the switch on both ends. The impetus, as expected, was Coffey, who scored six of Northwestern’s first eight points of the quarter. Coffey had 15 of Northwestern’s 27 in the quarter, scoring 11 points in succession for Northwestern in the process. She did not intend to lose, and had a staggering 21 points at halftime. Northwestern led at the half 41-32.
The third quarter began with another Coffey layup, and Northwestern managed to stretch its lead to 50-38 on a midrange jumper from Inman with 6:21 remaining. Northwestern continued to cruise along, holding the lead between nine and 11 as the quarter ticket by.
But then disaster struck.
With Northwestern up 12 with 1:32 remaining in the quarter, Iowa’s Megan Gustafson personally went on a 7-0 run to close out the quarter. The key play occurred when Lauren Douglas missed a wide-open layup and Gustafson converted the miss into a three-point play on the other end. Suddenly, Iowa had made it a game.
Christen Inman was unfazed: “I was sure we’d be able to close it out. That was their run...but we knew we had ten minutes to do our jobs.”
Seven minutes later, an Inman go-ahead jumper would put Northwestern ahead for good, but all available nails were chewed away in the meantime.
The fourth quarter saw the Wildcats clinging desperately to a lead as Iowa charged ahead with renewed intensity. A layup from Disterhoft made it a one possession game right at the start of the quarter. Northwestern looked like it had stabilized things after a long two from Douglas to make it 66-60 with 6:40 left in the game. But a three from Makenzie Meyer cut the lead back to three, and two minutes later a Kathleen Doyle layup gave Iowa its first lead since the middle of the second quarter.
But Joe McKeown’s squad did not fold in the clutch. Inman responded with a midrange jumper with 3:30 left to make it 70-69. Somehow, Northwestern held onto that lead for the rest of the game, but not before a series of extremely stressful events occurred.
First, Iowa missed two shots that could have given the Hawkeyes the lead. One was blocked by Douglas, the other was a missed three by Doyle. Then Coffey hit a jumper with 1:50 to go after Northwestern forced a miraculous turnover. Deary had a snap reaction to pick up a loose ball and dished it to Coffey. 72-69.
Iowa missed a three and then a layup. Northwestern retook the ball. Then Deary threw it away, Inman fouled Gustafson, and the lead fell to 72-71. Panic ensued.
Then Deary turned it over yet again, but Iowa tried a ridiculous outlet heave to the backcourt that Coffey picked up. Deary went to the line with two huge free throws. She made both to make it 74-71.
Finally, in the tensest moment of the game, Iowa missed a wide open corner three and Lauren Douglas (74 percent career FT shooter) closed out the game at the line.
After an exhilarating win, Northwestern advances to face No. 1 seed Ohio State tomorrow at 11 a.m. CST. I’m happy. You should be happy too.
It’s been a good couple of days for Northwestern basketball.