After a close loss to Depaul last Sunday, the Wildcats (6-1) grinded out a tough 66-63 win over Boston College (5-4) on Wednesday night as a part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. With shades of last season’s 52-49 loss to Pitt during the same event showing up pretty much throughout, the Wildcats showed growth and resilience, pulling out the needed victory this time around against similarly weak competition.
After the loss of Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah to graduation, Northwestern has had large shoes to fill in their lineup. While Abbie Wolf has stepped up to take on the role as the starting center, and has impressed with her scoring ability and even rotational defense, she and the rest of the Wildcats struggled to compete on the glass against similarly sized competition.
The Wildcats also got off to a sluggish start, a feeling that never really seemed to dissipate. Byrdy Galernik, who had a crucial 13 point performance off the bench, later chalked it up to being put through the ringer over the weekend. “[Against Depaul] you’re running for 40 minutes straight. So our legs are a little tired, but we’ve got to get some treatment and get back into it.”
Northwestern had consistent difficulties trying to keep up with a Boston College team that just looked fresher.
“We’ve got to do a better job on the glass,” said head coach Joe McKeown frankly in his postgame presser. “BC outquicked us, BC out hustled us and you know, a lot of loose balls we didn’t come up with. We just looked a step behind.”
While the Wildcats were largely impressive defensively (especially on the perimeter), forcing 21 turnovers including a game-sealing steal by Veronica Burton that followed a full possession of dominance, they were vulnerable in the paint, with Boston College extending too many possessions thanks to their 21 offensive boards.
The two numbers virtually cancelled out, which kept the Eagles, who have not beaten a team with a winning record thus far this season, hanging around all night long.
Northwestern, however, locked down on defense down the stretch, holding BC to 4 points in the last four minutes (with the final two in the form of a meaningless basket as time expired).
“We made stops when we needed to, and we made big shots too.” said Lindsey Pulliam, who led the way for the ‘Cats with a game-high 25 despite foul trouble, postgame. “You have to learn to close out the game, dial in and just do what you’ve got to do.”
Offensively, the Wildcats struggled to break Boston College’s extended 2-3 press, despite the Eagles entering play as one of the worst teams in the country defensively. Northwestern a heavy rotation thanks to both foul trouble and an effort to find an answer, with 11 different players seeing the court during the game. On the one year anniversary of her open-heart surgery, true first year Kaylah Rainey was used to help provide a spark, taking full advantage of her athleticism.
After starting the season slowly, Galernik has heated up and become a force off the Wildcat bench. In Northwestern’s first three games, she scored a total of two points, but has since averaged almost 12 points per game. Wednesday night, she was crucial, providing scoring whenever the Wildcats needed it.
The team continues to be heavily reliant offensively on Pulliam, though, especially on days where no other starter can really get anything going. The junior finished 10 of 16 from the field en route to her 25 points.
Overall, Northwestern had issues from the field, shooting 37% overall and 31% from three, but were able to push through their struggles on both ends of the floor and come out victorious.
“I think you’ve got to you’ve got to find ways to win ugly,” McKeown said. “I told them in the locker room, I’ve coached a lot of ugly teams. I can go without shaving and not get a haircut all year if we just want to win ugly. But we’ve gotta get better.”
The ability to grind out wins like this, in a similar fashion to what they did in an overtime victory against Marquette three weeks ago, is reminiscent of the team’s run in the WNIT tournament last year, specifically comeback victories over West Virginia and Ohio where they shot 38% and 36% respectively.
The team has looked strong on the whole in their early season performances. But for the Wildcats, this close victory against the downtrodden Eagles displays an ability to fight through adversity that will become crucial come conference play and even, potentially, the postseason.
While the Wildcats still have a few unanswered questions, their ability to grow into games with the help of the ever-present scoring of Pulliam allows them to work out the kinks even as they continue to win. That valuable trait is the result of some key growth from last season.
“Sometimes it’s really good to teach from ahead,” said McKeown on how his team could learn from the game. “It gives you teaching moments, too, and I think this group understands that.”