Northwestern women’s basketball is back and ready to kick off its season after an exciting post-season WNIT run last year. The Wildcats are a deep, athletic team with an especially strong backcourt. After only graduating one senior last year, the Wildcats return the bulk of their talented core. However, that one senior was starting center Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah, and her absence leaves a big gap for Northwestern inside.
2018-2019 Season Review
Northwestern finished the 2018-2019 season with a 21-15 overall record and a 9-9 conference record. The year was marked by some impressive highs and some rough lows. The Wildcats defeated three ranked teams on the season — Duke, Michigan State and Indiana — and came extremely close to almost every other ranked team they played.
However, they also dropped some games they shouldn’t have during conference play, like falling to Purdue and Minnesota twice each or dropping a close one to a struggling Nebraska team as the regular season came to a close.
Like in recent years, the 2018-19 Wildcats were just a bit too inconsistent, which was well-represented in their post-season performance. In the Big Ten tournament, Northwestern’s conference championship dreams were cut short after Michigan State — a lower seed and a team they had already beaten — defeated the Wildcats 69-52 in the first round.
However, they were able to bounce back and go on a huge run in the WNIT. Northwestern won five games in a row against Dayton, Toledo, West Virginia, Ohio and James Madison to advance to the WNIT Championship, where they took on Arizona. Northwestern unfortunately fell 56-42 in the finals, but the year was marked by an impressive final push into their sixth month of play.
While Northwestern only graduated one player at the end of last season, she may have been the biggest loss possible. Starting center Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah played her final game in Evanston after an outstanding overall career. She finished last season with 19 double-doubles, scored over 900 points in her career, earned first team All-Big Ten honors as a senior and became only the second Wildcat ever to record over 1000 rebounds. Her presence inside will be greatly missed, as she accounted for almost 30 percent of the team’s boards last season.
“There are very few players out there like Pallas,” Coach Joe McKeown said. “I was very lucky to coach her. Her absence creates opportunities for other players to step up, and it’s got to be a team thing.”
Northwestern is welcoming two first-year guards to Evanston this year: Kaylah Rainey and Laya Hartman. Rainey is a 5-foot-6 Illinois native and was the 14th-ranked guard in her class by ESPN. She scored over 1000 points in high school by junior year and holds her high school’s record for steals and assists.
Hartman was a top-40 player nationally, according to Dan Olson’s Collegiate Girls Basketball Report. The 5-foot-11 Michigan native was the 13th-ranked guard in her class and chose Northwestern over 16 other schools including Tennessee, Minnesota and Michigan.
Both players are explosive and aggressive, as we saw in their few minutes during Wednesday night’s scrimmage. They will add to the strong guard core this season, and Hartman may occasionally get in as a post player due to her size.
2019-2020 Season Outlook
The Wildcats have the potential to be one of the best teams on campus this year. They are returning the bulk of their talent and match up very well against Big Ten competition. Last year’s young group has matured, and each player has diligently worked to develop her individual game in the offseason, which showed in the scrimmage against Lewis on Wednesday night.
However, there will be a big emphasis on Northwestern’s post players and how they can adjust in Akpanah’s absence. After only gaining two guards, Northwestern will have to rely on its returning bigs. Abi Scheid was a major asset as a starting power forward last year and the third-leading scorer on the team, but she may have to take on even more of the scoring and defensive load. Abbie Wolf, Amber Jamison and Courtney Shaw will all have to step into larger roles as well.
Additionally, the guards will have to continue to produce as they have on the offensive end to account for the loss. Returning every member of the backcourt and adding two new ones bodes well for the Wildcats. Expectations are high again for Lindsey Pulliam, last season’s leading scorer and one of the best guards in the conference, with supporting performances from Veronica Burton and Sydney Wood.
Three-point shooting is a big emphasis for both the guards and some of the bigs, as Northwestern shot just 31 percent from beyond the arc last year. Northwestern will likely look for the three much more this season and hope their shots will start to fall sooner rather than later.
While Northwestern looks strong overall heading into this season, five Big Ten teams are ranked in the AP Preseason Top 25. However, a lot of those top-ranked teams, like Minnesota (who already lost to Missouri State at home) and Indiana, were surprisingly overrated, so Northwestern should be able to match up well in conference play compared to the nine losses they faced to Big Ten opponents last year.
The Wildcats’ nonconference schedule is manageable but will certainly present challenges of its own. No. 18 DePaul is the only ranked nonconference team they face; however, Duke and Marquette are consistently tough matchups for NU.
Northwestern will face Loyola Maryland later today in its season and home opener. The game will be broadcast live at 3:30 on BTN+ and via the radio from WNUR Sports-89.3 FM and online. Don’t miss it!