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For the ‘Cats, it’s the endings that have made all the difference

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Those late game heartbreakers early in the season have turned into heroics.

NUSports.com

With Minnesota next up on its schedule, Northwestern was recovering after a loss to then-No. 10 Maryland. The Wildcats were 14-9 overall and 7-5 in Big Ten play. Not bad at all. In fact, pretty good.

Northwestern was only on the fringes of the NCAA Tournament conversation, but with its recent run of play trending up and with winnable games ahead, the ‘Cats controlled their own destiny and with enough good performances could likely play themselves into the Big Dance. With four games left in the season, they had their eyes on a top-four spot in the Big Ten Tournament. A seed that high would have meant an automatic quarterfinal berth. One win from there might have been enough.

That didn’t happen. Though the end of the regular season was shaping up to potentially be something special, this team just wasn’t able to finish. Against Minnesota, after coming back from down 14 points, the Wildcats led in the final minute and Abi Scheid had free throws to ice the game, but she couldn’t hit them. They would go on to lose in overtime.

At Purdue, in about as close to a must-win game as they could have, the Wildcats played a tough, solid road game for 40 minutes. The game went back and forth between them and the Boilermakers, but Karissa McLaughlin put the nail in the coffin with a game-winning three-pointer in the final seconds for another agonizingly close loss.

A loss to middle-of-the-Big Ten Nebraska did not help, and beating then-No. 12 Iowa and Big Ten Player of the Year Megan Gustafson on the road was never going to be an easy task.

If the ‘Cats had pulled out the Purdue win along with either the Minnesota game or Nebraska game, there was talk around the program that a strong seed in the conference tournament might propel them into the NCAAs. It didn’t happen.

As an eight-seed in the Big Ten Tournament against a tough nine in Michigan State (who became a ninth seed in the Big Dance as well), Northwestern fell behind immediately and recovered briefly in the third quarter only to trail again for good. That was that for NCAA Tournament hopes.

After failing to reach the tournament and finishing the regular season losing six out of their last eight, it would have been easy for a young Wildcats team to pack it in.

This team, though, was never about giving up. Win or lose, this team was accustomed to tight battles and comebacks. Six of the Wildcats’ nine conference losses came within 10 points; they just weren’t quite able to finish on the right foot.

But fast forward, and Northwestern, for the first time in program history, is in the WNIT Championship. For a team that ended the regular season on a slide, the body language and mentality of the players looks more like those on a mission to send one of the greatest to ever don the Northwestern jersey, Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah, out on top.

A routine demolition of Dayton at home to open the tournament was a good sign, but there was no sign of adversity that might test the team’s postseason resolve. That probably ended up being fine, since the Wildcats have needed every ounce of that resolve in their last four games. They have won those contests by only a combined 17 points.

What might be most incredible about this postseason run is not the fact that Northwestern has simply won. Rather, it has been how.

In the round of 32 at Toledo, the ‘Cats scored four points in the first quarter. Four. They trailed by 16 in the third, only to go on a shocking 30-4 run to close things out and advance to another fierce road opponent in West Virginia.

Entering hostile territory, the Wildcats once again found themselves in an uncomfortable position early on against the Mountaineers. Task: climb out of an 18-point deficit in the second quarter. Success: you better believe it. Of course, it was a patented Lindsay Pulliam jumper from the elbow coming a pick and roll with Akpanah that gave NU its first lead with 35 seconds to go. That was all they needed.

The defense has been there all season, as the team gives up just 59.6 points per game, which ranks second in the Big Ten and ninth among Power Five teams, per NCAA.com. It has shown up when NU has needed it most, in the forms of timely steals, rebounds and defense without fouling.

A surprise home game against 30-win Ohio in the quarterfinal was yet another heartpounder. It was a two-point Ohio lead at half, but the Bobcats stretched it to as many as eight at the start of the fourth quarter. Getting to the quarterfinals of the WNIT was an accomplishment in itself, but it seemed the comeback artists’ luck had run out. Not so fast.

Once again, the Wildcats locked things down on the defensive end. Four forced turnovers in the final three and a half minutes of the game allowed Northwestern to earn another miraculous win, holding their fourth straight opponent to single digits in the fourth quarter as Ohio’s attempted buzzer beater rolled around and out.

The semifinal at James Madison doesn’t follow the pattern of the previous three games. The Wildcats pounced on JMU early and never lost their lead. But all of a sudden, a fifteen-point lead with three minutes left melted into just a three-point advantage. This time, though, with four seconds to go, Abi Scheid hit both free throws, putting the Wildcats up by two possessions and casting any doubt aside.

This team follows its gritty, clutch, senior leader, Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah. They have out-hustled, out-defended, and flat-out out-played teams down the stretch for their entire five game run. And with that blueprint, it’s hard to ever count them out, no matter how dim their prospects.

The Wildcats have been close all along, and during the WNIT they have flipped their traditional end-of-game narrative. Arizona might have the home-court advantage in tomorrow’s championship, but you can be confident that Northwestern will be in it all the way to the final buzzer.