Abi Scheid, the team’s second-leading scorer, left in the second quarter of Northwestern’s game versus Michigan with an injury. Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah, their best player, fouled out in the fourth. But with time ticking down in overtime, Jordan Hamilton somehow maneuvered her way past three defenders to the rim. Her layup bounced from the back of the rim to the front, and hung there for an agonizing moment before falling off.
Five days later, against Purdue, Lindsey Pulliam had the ball on the baseline. Scheid’s ankle issues had kept her out for this one as well. Northwestern had climbed back from an 11 point halftime deficit, and trailed by one with less than ten seconds to go. Pullman’s turnaround fadeaway rattled halfway down before popping out.
The Wildcats (9-7, 2-3) were that close to winning four of their first five conference games. Eight points were the difference in their three Big Ten losses. But they haven’t quite been able to seal the deal, and a team that can compete with everyone has found itself on the short end of the stick.
“The biggest thing is the way we start... We can’t dig holes like that,” Joe McKeown said.
In Ann Arbor last Tuesday, despite trailing after the first and second quarters, Northwestern wore down a Michigan squad that cooled off from beyond the arc down the stretch. But after taking a six-point lead on the back of a career day from backup center Abbie Wolf, who finished with 17 points and 13 rebounds, the Wildcats let the Wolverines crawl back in it.
After a Lindsey Pulliam jumper reclaimed the six-point Northwestern advantage with less than five minutes to play, Michigan stormed back to tie things up. A Wolf layup, a split pair of free throws from Veronica Burton, and two makes at the line for Pulliam reset the lead at four with 37 seconds to play, though, and things seemed over.
But the Wolverines scored, and 81 percent free throw shooter Jordan Hamilton clanked the potential game-icing points. On the other end, superb Wolverine freshman Naz Hillmon, who finished with 21 and 11 rebounds, sent it to overtime.
Northwestern continued to fight, but missed free throws continued to haunt them. Bryana Hopkins, who played the full final 26 minutes after Scheid’s injury, missed a pair down a point with 41 seconds left, and after a stop, Hamilton’s game winner just wouldn’t go down. Pulliam led the Wildcats with 22 in the losing effort.
Sunday’s game was a different story. Purdue zoomed out to a larger early lead, doing so by stifling Northwestern defensively. The Boilermakers (who average 16 fouls per game yet weren’t whistled defensively through the entire first half) held the Wildcats to 30 percent shooting from the field, leading 33-22 at the break.
Clutch threes from Pulliam and Byrdy Galernik cut a lead that reached thirteen to a manageable six entering the final frame. Northwestern just kept hanging around. Thanks to some big shots and assists from Hamilton, they kept it within two scores, but never got it down below three until the last minute.
Akpanah’s layup entering the final sixty seconds had brought it back to a one possession game, and after a stop the Wildcats had the chance to go for the tie. Instead, a Pulliam pull-up cut it to one. After using their two fouls to give, Northwestern heavily pressured the sideline inbounds, forcing a missed pass and setting the stage for another potential game-winner.
But Pulliam missed, and Hamilton’s heave at the buzzer fell harmlessly off the rim. Purdue took it, 57-54.
Akpanah finished with 13 and 14 rebounds, while Pulliam led the way again with 15 and Hamilton chipped in eight with six assists. For Purdue, Ae’Rianna Harris had 16 and 11 boards.
“We got great looks,” McKeown said of the deflating back-to-back losses. “We’ve just gotta keep playing. This team is young, has a lot of heart, a lot of spirit. We’ll bounce back.”
Northwestern will head to Bloomington on Wednesday to continue Big Ten play against No. 25 Indiana.