Northwestern’s run in the WNIT may have ended with a 56-42 loss to Arizona, but it’s clear from the last two weeks that this program’s potential is growing.
In front of a packed crowd, Arizona dominated Northwestern defensively and was in control from wire to wire. There’s not much else to say about the game itself. Despite Northwestern playing excellent “blizzard zone” defense, the purple Wildcats were unable to make enough shots to win. Veronica Burton hit three threes and led the team with 16 points, but that was the only real bright spot on that side of the floor.
But that’s all okay. Northwestern played five dramatic games in two weeks and then had to fly west to compete in a true road game for the championship. What the team accomplished on the way there is beyond impressive.
The Wildcats have often played their best basketball late in the season (the 2016 Big Ten Tournament semifinals run as a No. 12 seed and an uptick last year are the most recent examples), and while they are losing senior leader and rebounding genius Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah, the future is bright. Burton’s emergence as an offensive threat is a big part of that—she scored double-digit points in each of Northwestern’s WNIT games, and could be a huge addition as a third or fourth scorer. With Pulliam, Hamilton and Scheid all back next season, this team is in the conversation for an NCAA Tournament appearance — a feat they haven’t achieved since 2015.
Contextualizing a run in the WNIT is always difficult. On one hand, the WNIT energizes fanbases and provides a great platform for development. Indiana’s run to the title last year led to an NCAA Tournament appearance in the next, without its star point guard. There’s no reason Northwestern can’t do the same.
On the other hand, especially for Arizona, which could definitely have won at least a game in the Big Dance, you are often left wondering what could’ve happened. It’s impossible not to think about the what-ifs. Logically, you should celebrate the WNIT and its 64-team structure that generally allows for total chaos. But people are irrational, and what could have been always remains a thought in the back of the head.
I encourage you to not think about the other potential outcomes. There’s only one existence and only one reality. In that reality, I am extremely proud and happy for Northwestern women’s basketball, who produced a brilliant six-game stretch of thrilling comebacks, clutch plays and stellar performances. Northwestern fans should also be proud and happy for Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah, the best natural rebounder in school history and a shoe-in for a spot on the Northwestern Hall of Fame display they have in Welsh-Ryan. From that night in 2016 when she dominated Ohio State’s Shayla Cooper for 14 points and 14 boards, Northwestern has had a special player, a rock-solid presence through turbulent times for the program.
The ending to this week, a 56-42 loss to Arizona yesterday afternoon, was not what Northwestern fans wanted. The Wildcats’ offense was not operational. They shot just 26.5% from the field and scored 0.63 points per possession. It highlighted all the problems this team will have going forward. Can the team retain defensive strength without a guaranteed double-double from Pallas? Can Northwestern get a full season of reliable shooting from Scheid, Pulliam and Burton? Can Northwestern match up against more athletically talented teams for an entire conference schedule?
These questions are valid, but what we do know is that Northwestern will not fail for lack of trying. They showed incredible fight in the WNIT, and that isn’t going anywhere. It’s worth remembering that Northwestern, historically a long-downtrodden program, is new to all of this. This program didn’t start regularly posting winning records and competing in meaningful postseason games until this decade. Joe McKeown’s biggest legacy is giving this program a true identity that was cemented in this year’s WNIT.
However, there must also be a sense of urgency. Northwestern has had plenty of talented rosters and program momentum throughout the 2010s, yet has mustered just one trip to the NCAA Tournament. While we should not get caught up in past “what-ifs”, future hypotheticals and goal-setting are important, and Northwestern’s goal of reaching and competing in the NCAA tournament is as clear and as attainable as ever.
Two weeks ago, when Northwestern began the fourth quarter in Toledo trailing by three points, things weren’t as clear. But after this miraculous WNIT run, we now know this team can compete for real. Next season can’t come any sooner.