Northwestern women’s basketball (5-0) has started its nonconference schedule as strongly as it could have hoped, but Sunday afternoon, for the first time this season, the Wildcats will be challenged with a ranked opponent: No. 16 DePaul.
After an impressive 29-point win over Colgate, Northwestern is riding a high. The team has shown poise, depth and perseverance in its first five games. Lindsey Pulliam has been a fearless leader, averaging 17.8 points per game, and the rest of the starters, especially Abi Scheid and Abbie Wolf, have put up solid numbers as well. The bench has even overachieved at times, with specific members marking themselves as relatively reliable.
However, Northwestern will be put to its biggest test of its nonconference schedule on Sunday. Year after year, head coach Doug Bruno and consistent national contenders DePaul are top competition for the ‘Cats, who have not defeated the Blue Demons since 2014 in what was a double-OT instant classic.
Last year, Northwestern fell 76-60 when DePaul was the 20th-ranked team in the nation. Jordan Hamilton led the way with 20 points on the day, and Pulliam was close behind with 13. Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah left the game after less than 30 seconds with an injury, and it was an overall tough afternoon for the ‘Cats, who staked themselves a huge lead but could not ultimately hold on to it.
While Hamilton has seen limited action so far during nonconference play for maintenance reasons, Northwestern could certainly use her presence on Sunday like they did last year.
This season, DePaul looks just as strong, if not stronger. The Blue Demons are off to an impressive 5-1 start amidst a challenging nonconference lineup. Their only loss comes to No. 7 Oregon State, which is more than understandable, and they managed to defeat then-No. 16 Miami 89-83 last week for their first ranked win of the year.
As usual, DePaul has been an unstoppable force on offense, averaging 91.3 points per game. Northwestern has not yet scored above 73 points in a game this season. Eight Blue Demons are averaging over 7.5 points per game, compared to Northwestern’s four in that category.
Senior forward Chante Stonewall has led the way for Bruno and co. with 17.3 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. Close behind, sophomore guards Sonya Morris and Lexi Held are averaging 15.5 and 13.8 points, respectively.
However, DePaul has shown some early weaknesses. Similarly to Northwestern, DePaul has averaged just over 30 percent from three this season, which is especially problematic given how much they tend to rely on good numbers from beyond the arc.
NU’s 29.3 percent three-point shooting is an early-season concern as the team looks to improve on last season’s mark, but luckily, the Blue Demons’ abilities do not seem far ahead. Additionally, DePaul has not shown a very strong defensive presence so far this year. They have allowed an average of 74.3 points per game from their opponents compared to Northwestern’s mark of 47.2.
Ultimately, Northwestern could very much win this game and earn its first ranked victory of the year. The Wildcats are on the bubble of the top-25 rankings, and this home W would put them over the edge.
However, their three-point shooting needs to improve if they want any shot at keeping up with the relentless DePaul offense. If Northwestern can find the offensive production they have missed at times early this year while continuing their lockdown defense, the Wildcats should walk away from Sunday as a ranked team.
Northwestern will take on its crosstown rival on Sunday at 2 p.m. at Welsh-Ryan Arena in its Autism Awareness Day game. If you can’t make it to the arena, watch on BTN+ or listen on WNUR 89.3 FM or online at WNURSports.com.