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Northwestern smokes Dayton in the first round of the WNIT

The Wildcats took it to the Flyers early and often, advancing to face Toledo on Sunday.

At least one Northwestern basketball team is still playing.

The Wildcats (17-14, 9-9 B1G) took care of business on Thursday night in the first-ever postseason game at the new Welsh-Ryan Arena, demolishing Dayton (17-14, 10-6 A10) 74-51. Lindsey Pulliam bounced back from struggles in the Big Ten Tournament with 26 points, and Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah added a double-double as Northwestern jumped on Dayton from the start and never let up.

“I thought we played really, really well, especially coming off of an extended break,” said head coach Joe McKeown postgame. “The way we opened the game up in the first half defensively, and then just holding serve from there.”

Indeed, the Wildcats put on a defensive clinic in the first twenty minutes. Dayton, who beat NCAA Tournament team Buffalo and played Big Ten regular-season champion Maryland close in non-conference play, didn’t seem to know what hit them early on. Only a single player (A-10 most improved player and Flyers leading scorer Jayla Scaife) scored for Dayton during the first 19 minutes of the game.

Yes, you read that correctly.

The Wildcats also forced 11 turnovers and forced the Flyers to shoot just 2-26 on all field goal attempts that were not Scaife threes in the opening half. Northwestern took a 39-17 lead into the break behind 27 combined points from Akpanah and Pulliam, and it never got closer than 19 points the rest of the way.

“We were aggressive. We attacked them, and didn’t really let them dictate what shots they wanted to get,” said Pulliam on how Northwestern was able to stifle the Flyers defensively.

A long layoff didn’t slow the Wildcats down. In fact, Northwestern, who last played exactly two weeks prior in their first-round Big Ten Tournament loss to Michigan State, certainly seemed to come in with a chip on their shoulder.

“I think the whole team wanted to prove something,” said McKeown. “In a way, [the Michigan State loss has] definitely given us some incentive.”

Perhaps most importantly, as a result of the win, McKeown and co. will get to see Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah play at least one more game in a Wildcat uniform. The star senior center, as she is wont to do, stuffed the stat sheet, finishing with 17 points, 11 boards, five steals, and three blocks. Both head coaches (Dayton’s Shauna Green coached at Northwestern for Akpanah’s freshman year) praised her effusively postgame, with each saying they haven’t seen another college basketball player with her unique blend of rebounding ability and never-ending motor.

Meanwhile, Pulliam, who went just 1-13 in the aforementioned MSU loss, bounced back in a big way, adding four assists to her game-high point total. When asked what it meant to her to have such success in her first postseason game, the sophomore forward responded simply, “It means I’m gonna go do it again on Sunday afternoon.”

Veronica Burton added six points, five assists, and five rebounds for her fourth “triple nickel” game of the season. The Wildcats had ten players score and dished out a whopping 21 helpers as a team. For Dayton, Scaife led the way with 24 points.

Now, the Wildcats must head to Toledo for round two. McKeown had nothing but positives in his assessment of the Rockets, who defeated Seton Hall to reach the second round: “They do a great job. I’ve known their staff and their coach, Tricia Cullop, for a long time. They’ve got great fan support. We’re gonna have our hands full.”

The game will tip at 1 p.m. on Sunday, and will most likely be broadcast on ESPN3.