After suffering a crushing loss at home to Iowa, Northwestern women’s basketball has managed to get back on track very quickly, squeaking out close wins against Minnesota and Purdue. Now, a marquee matchup looms on the horizon, giving NU a chance to show that they are true contenders both within the Big Ten and, potentially, on a national scale.
The ‘Cats had some promising moments against both the Boilermakers and the Gophers, but also looked sloppy at times. NU led the former by as much as 16 and the latter by as much as 11 before breaking down near the end and winning the by margins of just five and two respectively. With that said, most of the ‘Cats’ miscues were on offense, and Northwestern’s leading scorer, Lindsey Pulliam, struggled in both contests, shooting 7-35 from the floor combined.
Still, the ‘Cats enter Thursday’s tilt with #15 Indiana with a 14-2 record, and, despite being snubbed again by the AP Poll, a rock-solid overall resumé. This evening’s trip to Bloomington, though, shapes up as their toughest test of the season, at least on paper.
The Hoosiers are no laughing matter. Their resume is quite impressive, featuring wins over #1 South Carolina (!), Miami, and Michigan State, and only three losses: to #2 Baylor, #7 UCLA (the final undefeated team remaining at the D1 level), and #22 Iowa in double overtime (and in Iowa City, where the Hawkeyes have won 30 straight).
Head coach Teri Moren leads a phenomenal group, including six players that average at least 9.5 points per contest. The team is led in scoring by redshirt junior point guard Ali Patberg, who puts up 13 on average. Close behind her is sophomore shooter Grace Berger, with 12.8.
Rounding out the rest of the Hoosiers’ impressive offensive arsenal are Mackenzie Holmes, a freshman post averaging 11.5 per game, Jaelynn Penn, a junior guard scoring 10.6 (and coming off of 24 against Iowa), senior and starting center Brenna Wise, who puts up 9.7 points and 5.6 rebounds per contest, and Aleksa Gulbe, a sophomore averaging 9.5.
Indiana is largely a team that can get production from anywhere on the offensive end, thanks to an attack that has never been more balanced under Moren. But they are also one of the most pick-and-roll-heavy teams in the conference, something that doesn’t typically work too well against Northwestern head coach Joe McKeown’s “Blizzard” hybrid zone defense.
Last season, the Wildcats swept the Hoosiers in the regular season, taking down then 25th-ranked IU 75-69 at Assembly Hall before torching them 69-49 at Welsh-Ryan, holding the NCAA Tournament-bound Hoosiers to their lowest output of the season.
Indiana, who returns three starters and five of seven main contributors from last year’s team (all of the above minus Holmes), shot just 35 percent from the field and turned it over 31 times over the pair of contests, with Patberg accounting for nine of them alone as the ‘Cats continuously jammed up the top of the key behind the tenacious defense of Sydney Wood and Veronica Burton.
The Hoosiers certainly have more reliable weapons and more offensive consistency this time around. But with Northwestern currently tenth nationally in scoring defense and McKeown seemingly having Indiana’s number, Patberg and IU will have work to do to achieve their typical offensive output.
On the other side of the ball, Northwestern may need some role players to step up. After scoring 23 against Maryland, Veronica Burton has posted just 22 points in the three games after, shooting a measly 5-22 from the field. If Burton cannot bounce back from the cold stretch, the Wildcats could use continued production from their bigs.
Coming off of struggles against Minnesota and Iowa (she scored just two points in each contest), Abbie Wolf turned things around, scoring 24 points against the Boilermakers. Wolf’s play on the glass and offensive side of the ball will be especially crucial for the ‘Cats as they go up against an experienced center in Wise. Meanwhile, Abi Scheid is averaging 11.4 points per game on 44% shooting from beyond the arc, and had a career-high 24 points against Minnesota, and will be key in her own right.
But even with Pulliam’s aforementioned recent struggles, she will undoubtedly be the go-to against Indiana. In her two career trips to Assembly Hall, the junior has averaged 30 points per game, drilling 21 of 38 shots and 17 of 20 free throws. The one time she played Indiana back in Evanston, the scorer put up 24 points and four assists on 9-18 shooting. Regardless of recent outputs, the Wildcats expect their leading scorer to be ready to go.
The Hoosiers, though tied with Northwestern for first in the conference right now, certainly look like the Big Ten’s team to beat. Especially if recent history is any indication, you can count on Northwestern to be relishing an opportunity to do so.
The game will tip tonight at 6 p.m. Central on BTN+. You can also follow along via the radio at 89.3 FM in the Chicagoland Area or WNURSports.com.