With just over seven minutes to play, Northwestern women’s basketball trailed 15th-ranked Indiana 57-45 at Assembly Hall. It was the Hoosiers’ largest lead of the day.
The Wildcats, who had not led since the second quarter, had scored just 28 points over the past 23 minutes. Their revered backcourt as a whole had accounted for only 17 points on the day, with each individual member shooting 33 percent or worse from the field. Abbie Wolf, who had been one of only two consistent sources of offense and, for much of the day, the only thing in the way of IU freshman phenom Mackenzie Holmes, had just picked up her fourth foul.
Northwestern as a team was just 2-11 from beyond the three point arc. With none of their typical sources of instant offense functional, and IU finally seeming to have fully figured out coach Joe McKeown’s patented Blizzard defense after stemming at least a half-dozen potential Wildcat runs earlier in the second half, a comeback became increasingly tougher to envision.
Even as the Wildcats embarked on a slow journey to close the gap, it never felt likely. A couple of times, NU cut the deficit to six before IU would hit a big bucket.
After all, Northwestern had seen this movie before: despite last year’s sweep of the NCAA Tournament-bound Hoosiers, certainly a positive sign headed into this game, the ‘Cats were 1-4 in games decided by five or fewer points across conference play in the 2018-19 season. And in their similarly big comeback against Indiana two years ago at this venue, Northwestern still fell short to the Tyra Buss-led squad in overtime.
But as they have all year in crunch time situations, the Wildcats never panicked. The defense stayed tenacious, and possession by possession, they turned it into offense, mostly from unlikely sources. First, it was backup center Courtney Shaw with a pair of free throws and an open layup around a pair of turnovers and Lindsey Pulliam’s fifth and final made field goal of the contest.
Then, after a slew of missed shots both ways, Veronica Burton, in the midst of her fourth consecutive cold shooting night, started to take matters into her own hands. A pair of free throws cut the lead to six. Then, after her impressive block turned into a missed Wolf layup on the other end, she and Sydney Wood forced a crucial turnover.
Wood, the defense-first guard who locks down the perimeter but averages fewer than five points per contest in nearly 30 minutes of action, drilled a rare free throw line jumper. Suddenly, it was Abi Scheid’s turn to step up. After finding Wood for her make, she grabbed a defensive rebound, got the ball back in a favorable position, and fed Wolf on the post for a massive hook shot.
On the ensuing possession, Wolf fouled out, but Lindsey Pulliam, though she still was struggling to score, quickly showcased her leadership. The junior hit Wood on a back cut, before earning the steal that turned into the play of the game.
In overtime, Northwestern found itself in a similar hole after some big offensive plays from Holmes against Scheid and the small-ball NU lineup stretched the Indiana lead to four with two minutes to go. But two possessions later, Burton found Scheid for her first open three in nearly 20 minutes of game time. The senior drained it without hesitation.
Immediately, the Wildcat point guard nabbed her team’s second steal in thirty seconds, earning her way to the line and sinking two clutch free throws. Just a couple of possessions later, Jordan Hamilton, who had struggled her way to an 0-6 shooting night, sealed the win with yet another takeaway on the final IU possession.
“We couldn’t score for a while, but we just kept playing,” said head coach Joe McKeown when asked postgame about the final stretch. “Finally got a couple of stops defensively, hit a couple tough shots, and then Veronica Burton took over Bloomington, Indiana. That’s what happened.”
Northwestern (15-2, 5-1 Big Ten) was in a hole that seemed impossible to dig out of. But with every member of the main rotation contributing and picking up the slack, and the team defense looking as strong as it had all season, the Wildcats picked up a win that looked improbable.
This is a Hoosiers group that beat the current number one team in the country earlier this season. Holmes, a five-star freshman, had the best game of her young, promising career with 22 points and nine boards. Indiana (14-4, 4-2) even defended well! None of it mattered in the end, because the Wildcats just wore them out down the stretch, thoroughly outplaying their higher-ranked opponents in crunch time on the defensive side of the ball and forcing them into turnover after turnover.
“It’s a collective effort, all the way through,” Burton said after the game. “Our defense really held through. Even when it got rowdy in here, when Indiana got momentum, we were really resilient.”
In the end, it was Northwestern that walked into Assembly Hall looking like the favorites, with confidence borne from their recent success against the Hoosiers and another fast start. Though that sensation waned during the middle quarters, it came back in full force down the stretch.
“We got kids that play with a little chip on their shoulder,” McKeown said fondly. “These guys are hungry, they know there’s a lot out there for them when we play together.”
Pulliam, Burton, and Scheid all played 43 minutes. Those also happen to be this team’s three captains, and the leadership within their positions certainly showed when it mattered. When the former struggled, not only did Burton and Scheid pick her up, but the junior guard managed to make plays without forcing shots, despite having been beat up and closely tracked all day long.
That same sentiment applies to the entire rotation. Though Scheid and Burton certainly led both statistically — both put up at least 15 points, seven rebounds, and four assists, with the latter tallying five steals for good measure — and in terms of playmaking down the stretch, all seven players mentioned above had their share of crucial moments.
Without the backcourt stepping its shooting back up, it’s tough to see this team being as consistent as they’d like to be. But Thursday showed that even without a crucial piece to its game, Northwestern can come up with an absolutely resumé-defining win. That makes this team dangerous to anybody they face, and it also means that expectations, already rising quickly, just went up yet again.
If recent results are any indication, they’ll be able to handle it.
“How we play is the most important thing,” Burton said when asked to look toward contending for a Big Ten title.
“We love being on top, but it’s even harder to stay there.”