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NUWBB weekend preview: Marquette and Duke loom

Starting this evening, the Wildcats will be hitting the road for a crucial pair of non-conference matchups.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 05 Big East Women’s Tournament - Creighton v Marquette Photo by Quinn Harris/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Northwestern women’s basketball will hit the road this weekend, heading first to Milwaukee to clash with a 2018-19 Sweet 16 team in Marquette before journeying down to Durham to take on the Blue Devils of Duke. After cruising by Loyola-Maryland in its season opener, the team will be put to the test with early-season matchups against some of the tougher teams on its non-conference slate.

Joe McKeown and co. faced the Golden Eagles last season at the tail end of a tough three-game losing streak for the Wildcats. At the time, Marquette was the No. 18 team in the country, and Northwestern fell 76-57. In the outing, only four players were able to score above three points: Lindsey Pulliam, Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah, Jordan Hamilton and Abi Scheid.

This season, Marquette has enjoyed a strong 3-0 start, seeing plenty of early action against lesser mid and low-major opponents. The Golden Eagles easily defeated Morgan State, St. Francis College (Brooklyn), and Illinois State, winning by a margin of 17 or greater in each matchup.

The team has dealt well with adversity thus far, having returned only five players from last year’s roster. Regardless of the team’s overall experience, the returning players have stepped up as leaders, and the new first years have actively contributed to the victories.

Junior guard Selena Lott is the top returning talent for the Golden Eagles and leading scorer so far this season. After putting up 24 points in each of their first two games, she shot the ball just five times against Illinois State, finishing with an uncharacteristic five points. It will be intriguing to see whether the Wildcats get the former or latter version of Lott, especially given the Northwestern guards’ typically aggressive defense.

Additionally, freshman forward Camryn Taylor has been a consistent contributor across the three games. She has averaged over ten points per contest in her first few outings and has been a solid presence inside.

Northwestern will hopefully tap into its depth a little better than last season against the Golden Eagles, and should be able to use its experience as an advantage against an extremely young (but still quite talented) opponent.

“We gotta clean up,” head coach Joe McKeown told us this week. “Marquette’ll make you pay for some of the mistakes we made [against Loyola-Maryland]....we’re getting there.”

Duke, on the other hand, has not started its season as well as it may have liked. After a 1-1 start with a win over High Point and an understandable loss to No. 6 Texas A&M, the Blue Devils continue to deal with injuries that have carried over from last season. Various maladies afflicting key players at key moments last year resulted in an underachieving season for Duke, whoy finished at just .500 after reaching the Sweet 16 the year before.

Early in this season, they are still missing two of their point guards, Kyra Lambert and Mikayla Boykin, leaving a fair amount of questions at that position and for the offense as a whole. As a result, the team will rely on Haley Gorecki, who is the early-season team leader in points scored, averaging 15.5 points per game in their first two matchups. Leonna Odom has filled in at point guard and contributed nicely with 13.5 points per outing thus far.

Northwestern faced Duke last season in its home opener when the Blue Devils were ranked 21st in the nation. The Wildcats came away with a huge 84-58 upset win behind a 21-point performance from Pulliam and 18 points from both Scheid and Hamilton.

“Last year, Duke was a big name,” Veronica Burton said at media availability. “But beating them the way we did gave us a whole new mentality about things like that...I’m sure they have a chip on their shoulder [from last year], they’re gonna be in attack mode right from the jump. So we can’t start slow at all the way we did last week.”

Duke will face UNLV on Thursday before hosting the Wildcats on Sunday.

If the Wildcats can maintain their defensive prowess this weekend (potentially emulating a performance that allowed them to force Loyola Maryland into 21 turnovers) while improving their 34 percent shooting percentage from the field, they may well be able to come out of the road trip with two crucial wins for their resume.

“Every day, every game has to be the same mentality,” Burton said. “Coach always says that it’s not who we play, it’s how we play.”

Northwestern will travel to Milwaukee to face the Golden Eagles at 7 p.m. CST on Thursday, before changing course and heading to Durham to take on the Blue Devils at 2 p.m. on Sunday.