EVANSTON — When Northwestern opened up a 17-point lead on Purdue in the second half of Sunday’s matchup at Welsh-Ryan Arena, it felt like a party. The ‘Cats were on their way to exorcising some Karissa McLaughlin-fueled demons against a team they hadn’t beaten since 2016.
“We’re really packing Welsh-Ryan now,” said senior center Abbie Wolf, who dropped 24 points. “Coach [Joe McKeown] told me when he first got here ten years ago he was on the street handing out flyers, trying to get like 50 people at the game, or something like that. What we’ve built here is really special.”
McKeown, standing by the side of the media room, looked up from the stat sheet to say it was true.
As has been customary with this team, though, no lead (or deficit) is safe, and a major scoring drought in the fourth quarter allowed the Boilermakers to cut the NU lead to one possession with under three minutes left. It was a very similar story to Thursday night’s game at Minnesota, when the ‘Cats surrendered a ten-point lead before surging back to win on a buzzer-beating layup from Lindsay Pulliam.
“Really frustrating the way we closed it out,” McKeown said. “This is not us, not the way we want to finish games. We’ve got to do a better job finishing games, and that’ll be the message all week in practice.”
There were tense moments but timely buckets to follow from the likes of Wolf and Pulliam. Free throws from Byrdy Galernik, Pulliam, and finally Veronica Burton ultimately quashed any hopes of a shocking Purdue comeback.
Despite the near-blown leads, this team has shown it has taken a step from last year, when it was often on the wrong sides of these close games against opponents it needed to beat. Both players and coach recognize that while winning ugly isn’t aesthetic, getting it done is all that matters, no matter how short the rotation is and how long the minutes are.
“Veronica’s floor game was phenomenal tonight,” McKeown said. “I think she was 0-5 or 6, but she wins games for you, makes plays to win game. Did the same thing the other night, made a great pass at the end of the game in Minnesota to Pulliam for a layup at the buzzer. Burton, Sydney Wood, those guys, they’ve got to be on the floor cause they do everything to win games.”
After missing out on making last week’s poll by a single vote, it seemed that a week featuring wins over two solid conference opponents coupled with losses from teams down in the poll would undoubtedly catapult them into the ranks of the nation’s most acknowledged.
In the postgame press conference, an exhausted Joe McKeown took multiple questions about his team all but assuredly finding itself ranked in the AP Poll on Monday. At 14-2 (4-1 B1G), the Wildcats have registered four wins over top-50 RPI teams, and their two losses came to teams ranked tenth and eleventh, respectively, in the same index.
However, when the new rendition dropped Monday afternoon, there was no Northwestern to be found. It was a surprising decision that showed the AP voters might have not watched much Wildcat basketball recently, especially since four-loss Maryland, a team they annihilated a couple of weeks ago, was ranked 20th. NU’s RPI is 15th in the country.
“I don’t worry about them [polls] as much as people do, because I think they take care of themselves,” McKeown said. “You gotta win games, and the polls are what they are. When I was at GW we had teams were ranked sixth in the country and we weren’t that good, and other teams that were really good were ranked 12th that could beat anybody.”
“Are we a top 20 team? Some days. We can beat a lot of people, but we’ve got to clean some things up.”
The once-again overlooked Wildcats will face one of their toughest tasks to date as they try to get right, traveling to Bloomington on Thursday to take on a top-15 Indiana team. The Hoosiers, tied with Northwestern atop the Big Ten standings, also recently downed Purdue, and they are the highest Big Ten team in RPI at nine.
Heading into a contest that will test the Wildcats’ depth, will and ability to close out games, it will be paramount for two of their biggest stars, Pulliam and Burton, to be effective offensively.
The two combined to shoot just 3-25 from the field against Purdue (and 6-24 against Minnesota), and it speaks volumes that NU was able to come out on top without that offensive production. Largely, the help came from their homophonic front-court seniors: Abi Scheid, who had 24 on Thursday, and Abbie Wolf, who matched the feat on Sunday.
“I trust [Pulliam and Burton] every day, so their shots I can live with because I know they’re capable and I’ve seen them doing it in big games, in big moments,” McKeown said. “I think we’ll be fine.”