Northwestern’s remaining hopes of reaching the NCAA Tournament were thoroughly quashed, as the Wildcats were dominated down the stretch by Michigan State and dropped out of the Big Ten Tournament, 68-52.
Northwestern (16-14, 9-9 B1G) couldn’t overcome dual 1-of-13 performances from Lindsey Pulliam and a returning Jordan Hamilton, and Michigan State (20-10, 9-9) had four players score in double figures en route to a comfortable 16-point win.
The Spartans started strong. Despite three Abi Scheid triples, Michigan State led 24-19 at the end of the first quarter thanks to impressive transition offense and post passing.
They continued to take advantage of Northwestern coach Joe McKeown’s blizzard defense in the second quarter, though a quick nine points from Abbie Wolf kept the Wildcats within striking distance. After a couple of empty possessions closed the half, Michigan State led 39-32.
Northwestern came out of the break with a vengeance. Seemingly having adjusted their half court defense, they stifled Michigan State for the first five minutes of the frame, allowing an 8-0 run spearheaded by Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah. But after the Wildcats took their first lead since early in the opening frame at 40-39, things fell apart.
Kunaiyi-Akpanah headed to the bench with three fouls, while Spartan star Shay Colley remained in with three of her own. And with Northwestern’s lone senior watching from the bench, Michigan State began a 24-4 run that lasted deep into the fourth quarter.
Suddenly, the Wildcats couldn’t stop the Spartans from getting out in transition. And their shooting woes went from bad to worse. The Wildcats endured a 2-of-18 stretch as Hamilton and Pulliam missed all twelve of their shots. Nothing was falling, and Michigan State continued to push the pace until they had just about wrapped things up.
Wolf, on her 21st birthday, led the way for Northwestern with 15 points off the bench on 6-of-7 shooting. It was the second straight game with 15 points for No. 21, giving hope that there will be some solid continuity at center with Kunaiyi-Akpanah’s departure.
Kunaiyi-Akpanah finished with 11 points and eight rebounds despite being limited to just 23 minutes with foul trouble. First-year point guard Veronica Burton also turned in an impressive all-around performance, adding 10 points, eight rebounds, and five assists.
Hamilton had five assists and three steals in her return, but it took her and Pulliam 26 shots to score five points. Their struggles from midrange were the key to this one offensively for the Wildcats, who were dared by Michigan State to take jumpers in the second half.
For the Spartans, who move on to face Maryland tomorrow, Colley led the way with 14 and seven rebounds, leading the all-important late run. Taryn McCutcheon, Nia Clouden, and Jenna Allen each scored at least 10.
Northwestern leaves Bankers Life Fieldhouse disappointed, but not necessarily finished. It still appears likely that the Wildcats will be invited to the WNIT, and while they probably won’t host anymore, they should get the chance to continue their season.