UPDATE: The championship game will be held at Arizona on Saturday at 2 p.m.
Northwestern (21-14), on the road for the third time in four games, ground out an impressive win to advance in the WNIT, allowing their incredible run to culminate in a championship game appearance. The Wildcats beat James Madison (29-6) 74-69, becoming just the third team all season (and the first since December 8th) to put at least 70 points on the Dukes.
For the first time since their opening round cruise against Dayton, the Wildcats weren’t forced to mount a comeback, leading from the tip to the final horn against the second-ranked scoring defense in the country.
Lindsey Pulliam led the way with 16 points, and Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah re-broke her own program record with her 19th double-double on the year, grabbing 11 rebounds to go along with 11 points. For the first time in recent memory, Northwestern saw all five starters score in double figures in what was an extremely efficient offensive attack.
The Wildcats started out hot. Behind a game-opening three from Veronica Burton, a couple of early buckets for Akpanah, and two triples from Abi Scheid, Northwestern jumped out to a 19-5 advantage. The shell-shocked Dukes managed to hit back behind Jackie Benitez, though, with the junior supplying four out of the six threes that JMU hit in the final 12 minutes of the half.
The Wildcats battled through the three point barrage. Burton and Jordan Hamilton hounded the Dukes into repeated turnovers at the top of the key, and Northwestern hit enough shots to hold a 34-27 lead at the half.
In the third quarter, James Madison was suddenly on their heels. Hamilton, who battled through injuries all season, reached double digits for the first time since February 14th with a quick burst of scoring. Scheid drilled two more threes. And with Burton keeping the pressure on defensively, the Wildcats got out to a ten point lead heading into the fourth quarter after a couple of nervy moments where the Dukes threatened to cut the lead to a possession.
In the fourth quarter, which Northwestern has dominated all tournament long, they took control. They spread the lead out all the way to 68-53 with under five minutes to go. And while James Madison launched a bit of a comeback after Burton fouled out, they failed to get the lead back down to one possession until there were 4.9 seconds left in the game, whereupon Scheid sealed it with a pair of free throws.
Thanks to their frantic comeback efforts, the Dukes became the first team all tournament to score double digits on the Wildcats in the fourth quarter. The Northwestern defense still took its toll, though, forcing a whopping 18 turnovers on the game.
Burton continued a masterful run with 12 points, five assists, and five steals. The freshman point guard now has scored 44 points on just 19 field goal attempts in her last three games. In 33 minutes on the court she was a +18, doing everything well while running the offense like a maestro. Scheid, meanwhile, added 14 points, six boards, and four assists, going 4-6 from beyond the arc.
Benitez led all scorers with 18 for JMU. Kamiah Smalls, their leading scorer, added 15, but shot a woeful 2-16 from the field.