For Christen Inman and her teammates, this win was personal.
“It means a lot that we get to play tomorrow, but our senior class hadn’t beaten Iowa...it’s an even bigger win in that way for us.”
Over the past four years, the “golden generation” of Northwestern women’s basketball repeatedly came up short against the Hawkeyes. For Joe McKeown, thoughts of playing Iowa immediately took him back to Iowa’s 102-99 win at Welsh-Ryan two years ago. In that game, Nia Coffey scored a career-high 35 points, the teams combined for 32 three-pointers, and yet Northwestern still came up just short. The matchup earlier this year was a lopsided 78-59 defeat.
It is fitting then, in the final Big Ten Tournament for this class of Northwestern women’s basketball, that Northwestern got the win. For Inman, Coffey, Ashley Deary, Lauren Douglas, and Allie Tuttle, Iowa is finally Io_a.
But in order for Northwestern to snag this all-important win to keep them barely alive on the NCAA Tournament bubble, Northwestern had to reignite itself on the fly. The moribund offense that had caused Northwestern to drop five of its last seven games had to change.
That started with Nia Coffey. Coffey and the occasional Lauren Douglas scoring outburst were just about the only thing going for Northwestern offensively in February, yet Coffey somehow found a way to give the team even more on defense and offense Thursday. She scored 34 points (one short of her career-high 35 against Iowa two years ago) on 15-of-26 shooting. She scored 34 without hitting a three and going to the line just 4 times. She added 8 rebounds (4 of which were on offense), 3 steals and 2 assists. It was a breathtaking, magnificent, and riveting performance.
After the game, she didn’t have much to say about her heroics. For Coffey, this absurd level of performance was the expectation. When asked what was working well for her, she curtly replied:
“Just attacking the paint and getting easy layups and being aggressive.”
Ha, easy layups. Those layups were not easy, I can assure you. Iowa threw everything it could at her in the paint. There were double teams, triple teams at times, and she still went for 30 points from the field. If you can’t hold Coffey under 30, you can hold this “L”, Iowa.
McKeown’s decision to start sophomore Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah for the first time of the year was key in allowing Coffey to express the finer points of her offensive game. With Kunaiyi-Akpanah covering for her on defense and on the glass like a true five, Coffey just steamrolled Iowa with no hesitation. Iowa, who did not see much of Kunaiyi-Akpanah in the meeting a few weeks ago, had no answers. After the game, McKeown gave the credit for the masterstroke to a couple of surprising sources.
“I will tell you I had Chris Collins actually talk to my team yesterday,” McKeown said. “He's been on me every day about Pallas, and so has my wife.”
Kunaiyi-Akpanah didn’t score, but with Coffey scoring 34, it didn’t matter. Pallas’ 7 boards and 4 blocks were more than enough.
Meanwhile, with the defensive end under control, the other Wildcats stepped up on offense. Deary had a tough day shooting the ball and holding onto it, but she made up for it with 4 steals and 7 assists. Lauren Douglas, the heroine of the Purdue game, added 17 to solidify her role as the secondary scorer on this team. Christen Inman added an efficient 11 points on 4-of-8 shooting herself. Her midrange jumpers, so off in the middle of the season while she struggled with injury, were on point on Thursday.
And yet, despite all that, Northwestern was down one with under four minutes remaining. It was Iowa after all, what were you expecting? Northwestern had lost a bevy of close games this year (Gonzaga, Ohio State, Purdue), and this latest collapse seemed to be inevitable. Iowa had been energized by an insane one-woman, seven-point run from Megan Gustafson to close out the third. Iowa had done this to Northwestern before.
But then, maybe, the magic of Bankers Life Fieldhouse kicked in for Northwestern. Last year, Northwestern came in reeling and weary after going 4-14 in the regular season. Then, as the No. 12 seed, it won three consecutive close games and made the semifinals. The insanity of that run was back in full force on Thursday.
“Yeah, I want to buy season tickets to the Pacers and the Fever,” McKeown said afterwards. “Just gonna drive back and forth and watch games here.”
Indianapolis has been very good to Northwestern. When Inman hit a jumper to give Northwestern the lead once again, it seemed impossible that Northwestern would manage to hold the lead for the rest of the game. Surely Gustafson, Makenzie Meyer or Ally Disterhoft would find a way past Northwestern’s defense. But that didn’t happen.
The game came down to a few bounces. Two late Ashley Deary turnovers gifted Iowa multiple cracks at winning the game. The Hawkeyes missed two open corner threes and a layup. They threw two golden opportunities to seize the initiative right to Northwestern down the stretch. But at this point, after a long and trying senior season, Northwestern basketball deserved a little luck.
Actually, given the events of yesterday night, apparently the universe decided Northwestern basketball as a whole needed a little luck. But just as the lucky blown Michigan assignment on Dererk Pardon couldn’t have happened without an insane piece of skill on Taphorn’s inbounds pass, Northwestern women’s basketball made its own luck on Thursday. In the process, Nia Coffey and her teammates ended a curse of their own.
Northwestern plays Ohio State tomorrow at 11 a.m. CST. It’s only fitting that we get one more edition of the Northwestern vs. Ohio State rivalry, after all.
The dream lives on.