Thanks to clutch shotmaking and timely defense, Northwestern (9-5, 2-1 B1G) upset Michigan State (11-2, 1-1) for the team’s first win of 2019. Making up for the men’s blowout loss on Tuesday, the Wildcats joined 9th-ranked N.C. State as the only teams this year to knock off the Spartans, who have beaten No. 5 Oregon and No. 19 Iowa already this season.
Northwestern kicked off Big Ten play with a grisly 45-41 loss to Rutgers in Piscataway in which they clawed their way back from a 34-18 third quarter deficit only to have a lack of execution doom them down the stretch. The defeat is starting to look better in hindsight, though: the Scarlet Knights just knocked off fourth-ranked and previously undefeated Maryland.
Next, the Wildcats welcomed Illinois to Welsh-Ryan Arena, and demolished them 68-45 for the largest margin of victory over their in-state rivals since 1990. But a quick turnaround from the hapless Illini to the menacing Spartans did not seem to bode well for Coach Joe McKeown and his crew.
However, with their myriad non-conference injury woes behind them, a Northwestern squad with newfound depth kept pace with Michigan State for an up-and-down 40 minutes of action. The Spartans, who led the Big Ten in scoring entering Thursday night’s clash, came out running, but the Wildcats were able to respond all night long.
With leading scorer Shay Colley back to full strength in her second game back from injury (in her first, she shot 1-8 against Iowa), Michigan State got going quickly. Colley had six and diminutive sharpshooter Taryn McCutcheon added two threes. But Northwestern also turned Colley over three times, eventually taking an 18-17 lead to the end of a back-and-forth period.
The Spartans kept shooting. Despite committing two more turnovers, Colley exploded for 12 more points in the second quarter, including two threes, and despite Northwestern punching back at every turn, a banked in Sidney Cooks three gave Michigan State a 38-34 lead at the half.
“We addressed it at halftime,” said McKeown of Colley’s instant offense. “I thought we did a better job in the second half...I felt like she had to earn everything.”
But it wasn’t just Colley. Northwestern began to force Michigan State’s shooters off of the arc (according to McKeown, it was a concerted change in their zone to do so), and the red-hot Spartans cooled off. After going 6-10 from three in the first half, Michigan State went just 2-10 in the second period, with most of those misses coming on heavily contested, forced shots. Meanwhile, the offense largely stayed on schedule.
Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah found her groove, and after a hot shooting second quarter, Northwestern switched things up, controlling the third thanks instead to six offensive rebounds. Controlling the glass despite shooting poorly, the Wildcats got to the line often enough and limited enough of Michigan State’s transition opportunities to be staring at a 52-50 lead late. But Shay Colley bounced a three in high off of the rim, and Northwestern came up on the short end of another big break. The Spartans headed to the fourth quarter with a one point lead.
Here, Northwestern’s defense took it to another level. With four minutes gone in the quarter, they had allowed just a twisting Colley layup and a 1-2 trip at the line. Besides a pair of Pulliam jumpers, though, Northwestern hadn’t found anything either. But down the stretch, despite their miscues in Piscataway, the Wildcats converted on opportunities.
First, after the Spartans retook the lead momentarily at 58-56, Jordan Hamilton stepped up late in the shot clock:
It was only her second field goal of the game. Then, after a series of missed chances both ways, a classic Lindsey Pulliam pull-up jumper gave Northwestern a four point lead, its largest of the night.
But the Spartans earned a dubious and-1. With misses both ways, the Wildcats found themselves with the ball and 1:08 left, clinging to a 62-61 lead. Despite her struggles from the field (she was 4-14 before this play), Akpanah had been getting to the line consistently, and knocking her free throws down when she got there. So they fed it to her on the block:
DOWN GOES SPARTY!@nuwbball defeats #15 Michigan State in Evanston thanks to Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah's 17 points! Here's the two that put it away!#BTNStandout x @AutoOwnersIns pic.twitter.com/CdAVCxZld2— Northwestern On BTN (@NUOnBTN) January 4, 2019
That three point play was all the Wildcats needed. Abi Scheid, who hit three big threes early on, sealed it with some clutch free throws, and Northwestern had their biggest win of the season.
“We’re still a young team. We only have one senior,” said McKeown. “But tonight we finished. We handled their press, they weren’t able to turn us over. And for the most part, we got good shots or got to the foul line.”
Northwestern certainly put the pressure on a veteran Spartan team, as they finished with 22 fouls, allowing the Wildcats 24 free throws (they made 15) to their 15 (they made 8). They also had the advantage on the turnover front, forcing 19 out of Michigan State while being turned over just 15 times. That discrepancy helped them limit Michigan State’s dynamic transition game, especially in the second half.
For the Wildcats, Pulliam led the way with 18 on 9-17 shooting, adding five rebounds and three assists. She kept Northwestern scoring through potential droughts that had tanked close games for the Wildcats early in the year.
Kunaiyi-Akpanah, thanks to a 7-11 performance from the line, added 17 points to go along with 10 rebounds and three blocks. Largely avoiding foul trouble, she played (and stayed fresh for) 29 minutes, with backup center Abbie Wolf adding six points and three boards in her time on the court.
“I just thought if I went hard, I’d either get subbed out or my teammates would have my back,” Akpanah said. “Wolf is such a smart player off the bench. Seeing her energy on the court is really contagious for me.”
The centers’ front court partner, Scheid, added 13, seven rebounds, three assists, and two blocks, and was all over the floor on both ends in her team-high 38 minutes. McKeown lauded her defense postgame, but didn’t want his junior forward getting a big head. “Don’t tell her I said that,” he chuckled.
Hamilton and Veronica Burton didn’t bring much scoring-wise, but combined for 12 assists, and were vital defensively in forcing the Spartans off the three point line. Burton, who had seven assists without a turnover against Illinois, added three steals to her average of 2.8 per game. The freshman looks like anything but on both ends of the court, and her fellow first year, Sidney Wood, matched her three steals off the bench.
The Spartans, as opposed to the Wildcats’ balanced attack, were a one-woman show. Colley finished with 28 points, seven rebounds, and four steals on 23 shots, though she did commit six turnovers. In the end, her offense just wasn’t enough.
Next up, Northwestern heads to Ann Arbor next Tuesday to take on the Wolverines, hoping to extend their two game conference winning streak.