As the fourth quarter began, Northwestern (20-14) was down eight and hadn’t scored in nearly five minutes. But once again, the Wildcats responded to a deficit, storming back to beat a feisty Ohio team (30-6) and advance to the WNIT semifinals for the first time in program history with a 20 point fourth quarter.
“The trust within our team has grown tremendously since the start of this tournament even, and definitely since the start of the season,” Veronica Burton said postgame. The first year point guard finished with 15 points, seven rebounds, six assists, three steals and just one turnover in an impressive performance.
Two of those steals came during crucial possessions in the last three minutes of the game. “What year are you?” asked head coach Joe McKeown playfully as he entered the room for the press conference. “She sure played like a junior...I’m glad we can get three more years with her on the floor.”
Lindsey Pulliam led the way with 22 points despite 5-18 shooting from the floor. Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah finished with nine points and 16 rebounds while battling foul trouble in what was potentially the senior’s final game in her home arena.
The Wildcats traded baskets with the Bobcats for most of the first quarter. After a couple of threes, Ohio led 16-14 going into the second period, which had much of the same in store. Four times, the Bobcats got out to a five-point lead, but NU continually reeled them back in, with a Burton three sending the Wildcats to the locker room down just two.
With Kunaiyi-Akpanah, who had all nine points and eight of her rebounds in the first half, in foul trouble, though, the Bobcats went to work. Ohio, who does not have a player above six feet in their regular rotation, had been doubling the center all game. But as she sat on the bench for much of the third quarter, Northwestern turned it over nine times, including seven in the final five minutes of the frame.
Only a few crucial stops kept Northwestern in the ball game heading into the final period. The Wildcats would continue to use their defense as they slowly clawed their way back. For the third consecutive time, Northwestern held an opponent to single-digit points in the final quarter.
After a Pulliam jumper cut the lead to six and ended the scoring drought, Burton nailed her third three of the game to bring the Bobcat advantage down to four with 8:24 to go. That began an incredible sequence for the freshman: she drew an offensive foul, blocked a layup, grabbed the rebound, and came down with another contested board before finding Abi Scheid on the break, leading to two free throws.
Ohio fought back to a six-point lead once again, but then it was Jordan Hamilton’s turn to hit a big shot. The sophomore guard, who has battled a leg injury for the past two months, banked in a three with 3:56 to go, bringing the lead back to two.
“Her and I were working on that in shootaround, so that’s all coaching,” McKeown joked.
From there, Burton took over once more. The point guard split a pair at the line after an Ohio basket before coming up with two steals around a huge Hamilton midrange jumper. On the latter, she was fouled, and this time nailed both to give Northwestern its first lead since 6-4 early in the first quarter.
After another Bobcat turnover, the foul game began. Pulliam went 4-4 from the charity stripe in the closing stretch, and Ohio rimmed out a potential game-tying three at the buzzer.
“Just make ‘em,” said Pulliam when asked what was going through her mind during the key foul shots. And Northwestern made plenty of ‘em. Pulliam and Burton alone combined to go 18-23 from the line, allowing the former to make a difference offensively despite a 5-18 night from the floor.
Akpanah, meanwhile, played the entire fourth quarter despite having four fouls. When asked why he put the center back in so quickly, McKeown responded simply: “She’s the best rebounder in the Big Ten. So, we need her on the floor.” The senior came through for the Wildcats, remaining in the game as an important presence underneath.
Hamilton added nine points and three assists for Northwestern, who overcame a whopping 21 turnovers to execute down the stretch.
Erica Johnson led the way for Ohio with 17 points. Amani Burke and Erica Hooks added 15 and 14 points respectively before fouling out.
“The atmosphere and the crowd just inspired our team, in the last two minutes especially,” said McKeown.
The Wildcats will have to wait to find out if they will remain at home. Their Final Four opponent will be either James Madison or Georgetown, who play tomorrow night. We will keep you updated as to the time and location of their next game.