Down by 11 points to lowly Illinois with seconds remaining in the third quarter, the Northwestern women’s basketball team needed some momentum.
Suddenly, Veronica Burton nailed a buzzer-beating shot from just inside half-court. The Wildcats (13-7, 6-3) didn’t look back, going on an 18-0 run to turn an 11-point deficit into a seven-point lead en route to a 64-56 victory over the Fighting Illini (9-11, 1-8). Northwestern has now won four games in a row to vault into a tie for fourth place in the Big Ten.
Playing without Abi Scheid (11 ppg), who led the Wildcats in their first win over Illinois this year with 25, and Jordan Hamilton (9.7 ppg), the Wildcats scuffled to only 25 first half points on 33 percent shooting. The Fighting Illini, losers of eight of nine before Sunday’s contest, took a nine-point advantage into the break.
Northwestern was able to get the lid off the basket in the third quarter, as Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah began to find her rhythm with three field goals. Still, Illinois clamped down on leading scorer Lindsey Pulliam (5-of-21 shooting) and dared the Wildcats to shoot threes. The Fighting Illini went on a 10-0 run to close the quarter before Burton’s buzzer-beater.
The fourth quarter belonged to the Wildcats. Pulliam, who struggled to find space all afternoon, converted a jumper and got to the line for some crucial free throws to tie the game. The Wildcat defense clamped down, forcing 13 straight Illinois misses. Meanwhile, the Fighting Illini shot themselves in the foot with several brutal turnovers.
Kunaiyi-Akpanah, who finished with 12 points and 10 boards, rebounded a Pulliam miss with 4:15 to go and converted the put-back to give NU a 53-51 lead. On the next possession, Byrdy Galernik walked into a three-pointer that put the Cats up by five.
Finally, reaching the two-minute mark, Illinois scored to halt the run, but it was too little too late. Northwestern sank their free throws down the stretch and returned home with an eight point win.
Already on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble, NU could ill-afford a loss to their downstate rivals. The Wildcats escaped, and now they’ll await a home matchup with Minnesota. The Golden Gophers started the season 12-0, but have lost six of seven.