clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

What happened to Northwestern women’s basketball?

The Wildcats’ best recruiting class ever somehow only went to a single NCAA Tournament.

Tristan Jung

It was early November and the credentials had been upgraded.

The Northwestern Athletic Department had changed the credentials. Now Nia Coffey emblazoned our passes to cover the Northwestern women’s basketball team. It was an insignificant change but the statement of intent was clear. Northwestern women’s basketball had been hauled from the wilderness into relevance. Northwestern was serious.

I was excited. It was hard not to be excited with Deary, Inman and Coffey taking the floor every night.

But Northwestern missed the NCAA Tournament. The clear goal, even the expectation in a workable Big Ten, was not met. In the end, Northwestern wasn’t even really close.

There are teams that build you up, teams that you can predict, teams that stir extraordinary emotions. There are teams that fill you with solace, hope, anger, indignity, anguish and, in precious moments, joy.

And then there are teams you cannot understand—

The ceiling for the 2016-17 team was obvious. Nia Coffey was a beast, a potential All-American and First Team All-Big Ten lock. Ashley Deary would become the all-time Big Ten steals leader and was two-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Christen Inman’s midrange game was automatic. Lauren Douglas was a fantastic two-way player when healthy. Younger players like Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah and Abi Scheid showed promise.

Yet as highly as the team could perform, the year was also defined by turbid offense, missed box-outs, and inexplicable defensive collapses. There were strange substitution patterns and starting lineups. There were also some incredibly unlucky bounces and whims of fate. Whatever the case, it ended on a downswing, with the seniors, worn down to the bone, languishing through their final game, a blowout loss to Ohio State. The team, exhausted and without a stadium, declined a bid to the WNIT and a chance at the program scoring record for Nia Coffey.

Fatigue and pain, soreness and exhaustion, the mental agonies and tragedies of life amplified by expectations of performance; they ground this team into dust. It’s not fair. College sports are not fair. Life isn’t fair. Life inflicts its unfairness on whomever it wants, for however long it wants.

For Northwestern to win games, it seemed, so much had to go right. Northwestern’s 2015-16 season was a disaster, but the Big Ten Tournament run at the end gave me enough optimism for 2016-17. Instead, we saw more of the same.

Basketball is not supposed to be a game of pain tolerance. Cross-country running is a game of pain tolerance. Basketball is a game of finesse and skill, a game for superpeople who can fly through the air and perform unthinkable feats for 40 minutes. In cross-country, the best strategy is to hold steady and play to not lose. In basketball, you must play to win. If you try to endure, you’ll inevitably end up burning out.

My explanation for what happened is Northwestern women’s basketball morphed into a battle of endurance. Deary, Inman and Coffey usually played nearly 40 minutes every game. Maybe all three wouldn’t get hurt, but the likelihood that someone would get mentally or physically worn down was high.

They were all warriors. Deary, Inman and Coffey, and later Douglas, back surgery be damned, just kept on going out there. McKeown could simply not trust anyone else to take their minutes off the bench. But at times, it was no longer basketball. It was some test of endurance, just to see if they could all make the finish.

And then the team had no interior presence for two years. In addition to having to play a furious zone defense on the wings, the “Big Three” also often had to figure out how to cover the rim. Northwestern’s centers were not quite good enough or strong enough to withstand 40 minutes in Big Ten play. That deficiency is in recruiting; blaming Northwestern’s traditional problems—high academic standards, lack of basketball pedigree, crap facilities—is a pit of inconclusiveness.

This year started well. Northwestern beat a ranked Florida team and then came back against Virginia. But again, the fatigue was catching up to Northwestern. Coffey missed a game against No. 20 DePaul and Northwestern lost 89-66, a game which would have solidified their resume. Inman injured her ankle in that game and was in-and-out for the rest of the year. Lydia Rohde, a starter at the beginning of the year, sustained an injury and was not the same for the rest of the season.

But the team was still playing well, even with Inman hurt and depth stretched thin. For a few weeks, it didn’t seem so hard. Freshman Abi Scheid played astonishingly well at times. The bench was contributing. Northwestern won seven straight after the DePaul loss. A loss at Gonzaga hurt (and set off some warning signs), but Northwestern made up for it with a 2-0 start to the Big Ten season and a 76-60 home win over Purdue.

Coffey was unreal in this stretch. In her first three games back after DePaul, she scored 26, 30 and 29 with 12 boards a game to boot. It was ridiculous. She was so much better than Northwestern’s competition. After the Purdue game, she was averaging 20 and 12 a night, along with a good number of assists and blocks. Nothing could stop her, it seemed.

It felt like basketball again. Deary was also in rare form. In one five-game stretch, she had 31 steals. Inman soon returned in full and produced one of the best games of her career, a 22-point effort on 9-of-15 shooting against Santa Clara. Against Purdue, she scored 16 and looked as good as ever.

And then—

Nothing you have read so far really matters. I’m focusing on basketball because it distracts.

Jordan Hankins was an amazing young woman who continues to be missed greatly. Of all the tragedies surrounding her death, what happened to the team is the least important in the grand scheme of things. I still don’t know how they kept playing basketball. I still don’t know how they beat Indiana, and then Michigan State three days later. The players said that playing basketball was the best way to honor her. It was the best way, but again, how do you keep playing basketball?

I don’t know if Hankins’ death solely derailed the season. Northwestern, having gone through its purple patch, may have run out of energy like it did in 2015-16 regardless. But for a team that was already playing through high minutes and the stresses of college basketball, dealing with that unfathomable tragedy guaranteed that the Wildcats would fall back into bad habits and return to “survival mode.”

There is nothing wrong with that. It is what most of us would do. In the face of senseless tragedy, endurance is second nature. We try to survive, get through the day, just keep going out there and clocking in while trying to keep the pain from leaking out. It’s terrible, but it’s human nature. The way Northwestern kept going after the tragedy was to endure and continue to play.

But basketball is no game of endurance. In a competitive conference, with teams not willing to give in, endurance and playing not to lose become weaknesses. You can win one or two games that way, but you can’t win consistently. Thus, everything unraveled. Northwestern had lost two games against the best two teams in the conference before Hankins’ death and the Minnesota game was rescheduled. Northwestern inexplicably won four of the five games after January 9th, but things were looking dicey by the fifth win over Wisconsin on February 1st. Northwestern had gotten blown out by Michigan and faced tough fights from Rutgers and Wisconsin.

The rescheduling of the Minnesota game also brought more headaches. Northwestern played three road games in five days and lost all of them. The Indiana and Iowa contests were not even close. After rallying together to defeat Indiana a month earlier, Northwestern lost by 28 in Bloomington. It looked depressingly like Northwestern’s blowout losses to close 2015-16.

The team looked exhausted during a four-game losing streak. The seniors’ incessant minutes had caught up to them again. Coffey looked tired and her shot was off. Deary rushed on offense. Inman constantly dealt with that ankle injury.

Northwestern pulled it together for two wins over Illinois and Rutgers. At this point, the goal, that dream of an NCAA Tournament that had spurred all the hoopla in the beginning, was nearly forgotten.

Of course, the dream wasn’t totally over. If Northwestern could steal a win at Purdue, a likely NCAA Tournament team, another solid run in the Big Ten Tournament could just get the Wildcats to the Dance.

Lauren Douglas wanted to go down fighting.Few expected what Douglas gave Northwestern in 2016-17. After missing all of the previous season with a serious back injury, Douglas did not miss a single game in 2016-17. With her team on the ropes, she played the best basketball of her career. Against Purdue, she was unreal. She was the leading scorer and had 4 blocks. Northwestern went up four with 1:23 remaining.

And then, the most depressing moment of my Northwestern fandom occurred. Ashley Deary lost the ball and Purdue scored. Deary missed a three and Purdue hit two free throws to tie. Douglas’ shot was blocked. Purdue took timeout. Then, this happened:

Northwestern went to the Big Ten Tournament, beat Iowa, gave me some hope, and then got crushed by Ohio State. As if things couldn’t get any worse, Maya Jonas came in for some meaningless minutes in the Ohio State game. There was a collision, and she re-injured her repaired knee that she had rehabbed for a full year. She could not get up. Her eyes were flooded with tears. There was silence and then muted applause after she was helped off the court.

Ian McCafferty and I sat there in utter disbelief. This was utterly pointless. Why did that happen? WHY DID THAT HAPPEN?

It came as little surprise to us when Northwestern declined the WNIT bid.

The future of the program looks bleak. Next year’s team will be inexperienced and under-prepared. Abi Scheid, Byrdy Galernik, and Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah have never played significant minutes.

The recruiting has been...okay. There are three four-star guards in the upcoming Class of 2017. Hopefully they can give the program a lift. More likely, however, the team will struggle in their first year. The team doesn’t even have a real NCAA court. They’re playing at Evanston Township High School.

Should we blame Joe McKeown and his staff? Yes, he must take his share of blame for the disappointment, but at times I felt like he really did the best he could do. It’s hard to hit on recruits to build depth at Northwestern. He had to play his best players, even if they ran out of gas at the end. His starting lineups and substitution patterns were consistently odd and quite predictable, but how much of a difference did that really make? Northwestern was always going to be as good as its best players. Its best players didn’t play very well as a team for large stretches of the last two years.

Still, there are “what-ifs”. The team that made the NCAA Tournament in 2014-15 was so fun, and seemed like the future. If Chris Collins, for example, were to underperform in the next two years, I’m sure there would be detractors calling for his job. But Collins had a bit more success to build on. McKeown had nothing and built something. That has to be worth something.

We should not forget what Nia Coffey, Ashley Deary, Christen Inman and Lauren Douglas gave this team. We cannot forget the apex of Northwestern women’s basketball, even if, in the end, a lack of depth and bad circumstances sapped the team’s potential. They still achieved great things. They are amazing student athletes and represented Northwestern with distinction. They were the “Golden Generation,” a once-in-a-decade group. I wish them well.

It’s the start of a new era at Northwestern, even as we reckon with the past.