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Wayback Wednesday: On January 2, 2003, Northwestern women’s basketball won its first conference game in three years

The June Olkowski Era was not very successful.

No one, and I mean no one, beats Northwestern women’s basketball 44 times in a row in the regular season.

Yes, Northwestern women’s basketball lost 43 consecutive regular season Big Ten games between January 20, 2000, and January 2, 2003. Even if you count its one win in the 2000 Big Ten Tournament over Iowa, Northwestern had lost 36 consecutive Big Ten games. Then, suddenly, it ended with a 52-46 win over Michigan State.

The losing streak began when head coach Don Perelli, the coach who brought Northwestern its only conference title and compiled a 251-181 record in the Big Ten, retired at the end of 1999. The program wasn’t a powerhouse, but it was steady and reliable. Northwestern had made the NCAA Tournament in 1997, ironically losing to current Northwestern head coach Joe McKeown and George Washington in the first round.

To start the next era, Northwestern tabbed June Olkowski, who had amassed a 114-56 record and an NCAA Tournament appearance at Butler. A Rutgers legend, she already had over a decade of coaching experience before coming to Northwestern. She became the youngest head coach in Division I history after assuming the Arizona job at just 27. When she was hired, there was little doubt that Olkowski was the right woman for the job. She had Midwestern recruiting experience, an excellent record at Butler, and was still just 39.

Instead, the lights went out. In the Big Ten, Olkowski went 7-73. Under her successor Beth Combs, the team went 7-59 in conference. Between 1999-2008, the team went 55-203, a 21 percent winning percentage.

However, this article will be focusing on the ill-fated Olkowski era. In the 36 games between Northwestern’s win over Iowa in the 2000 Big Ten Tournament to its next win, Northwestern was absurdly uncompetitive. The average margin of defeat was 21.5 points. The problem was mostly on offense. Northwestern only scored 55 points per game...for two full seasons.

There were close calls. In game four of the streak, Northwestern amazingly had a 10-point lead at halftime over an Ohio State team that would eventually go 22-11 and win the WNIT. Unfortunately, Ohio State rolled in the second half to win 66-61. Two games later, Northwestern lost by 57 points at Purdue. The Wildcats would not have a game within single-digits until its best chance at winning until February 4th against No. 15 Penn State.

Once again, sports are pure agony distilled. Northwestern had no business even hanging around with Penn State. In their last home game, Northwestern lost to Iowa 92-52. There was no reason to expect this game to go any differently. Then, the impossible started to happen. Northwestern shot 55 percent from the field in the first half. They refused to go away. With 1:56 to go, the Wildcats were still up 62-59. Then, Penn State scored the final six points and won.

Northwestern had more chances, but continued to find ways to lose. In 2001-2002, the only way Northwestern could win was against an equally horrendous Wisconsin team. Northwestern lost 70-65 and 60-58 to Wisconsin. The streak continued.

In Northwestern’s second Big Ten game on the road against Michigan State, no one expected any different outcome from the previous 43 games. Michigan State would finish well over .500 in 2002-03. Northwestern was coming off a double-digit loss to Denver and a 33-point loss to Ohio State. The season looked dire once again, after a few decent non-conference wins to start the year.

From what I could gather, the shooting was, predictably, terrible. Michigan State shot just 28 percent against Northwestern, which, again, hadn’t won a regular conference game in 43 attempts. The score was just 21-18 in favor of Michigan State at halftime, but few people expected the luckless Wildcats to pull out a victory.

But it happened. Michigan State just never got anything going, as evidenced by the 10 minutes and 30 seconds the Spartans were held scoreless by Northwestern. The Wildcats won 52-46 and improbably won their first regular season conference game in almost three years on the road against a good team.

It wasn’t just end of the streak. Someday, the streak had to end, but I will never understand how it ended with arguably June Olkowski’s most impressive win in her five disastrous seasons.

I looked for the game statistics and got this:

We can, therefore, mostly assume that the win was attained through wizardry.

Actually, sophomore Samantha McComb led the team with 14 points and hit seven free throws to ice the game. Northwestern’s bench, usually a major weakness, outscored Michigan State’s bench 19-3. Now that, I think, was actual sorcery.

Here’s a post game quote from the head coach.

“People have been saying we got the monkey off our backs, but that was more like King Kong," head coach June Olkowski said. "I thought the kids did a great job following our game plan and we defended very well."

Wait, that’s what you have to say after winning your first conference game in 43 tries on the road against Michigan State? I expected something along the lines of:

June Olkowski was way too classy for that, I suppose.

This game is inexplicable. It’s not like the Wildcats were that much better in 2002-03; they proceeded to lose 10 straight games after their first victory and were still terrible. The Wildcats did win two more games at the end of the year, taking down Michigan and Indiana at home. But still, Northwestern was 9-20 in 2002-03.

Olkowski failed to hit on any recruits in her tenure, Northwestern had terrible injury luck (and, let’s face it, almost no basketball investment to speak of), and she would be gone by 2003-04. Olkowski was a fairly decent and highly experienced coach, I think, but going to the Big Ten was a step too far.

The damage was catastrophic. Northwestern had squandered a decade of solid women’s basketball teams, entering a spiral of losing that would be unbroken until the hiring of Joe McKeown in 2008. June Olkowski never coached Division I basketball again.

But somehow, on one fateful day, everything fell in its right place for Northwestern.