EVANSTON — The situation was all too familiar.
Coming off of its best win of the season over No. 15 Indiana, Northwestern (16-2, 6-1 B1G) had to take on Penn State, a less-talented squad that hoped to steal a win from the blazing hot Wildcats and give the AP Poll voters a reason not to rank them again this week.
Just two weeks before, Northwestern lived that very frustration. After beating No. 12 Maryland but then falling to an unranked yet talented Iowa squad, the ‘Cats found themselves absent from the rankings despite earning their best win of the season at that point.
“Obviously, we know after Maryland, we laid an egg,” responded Lindsey Pulliam when asked how her team managed to avoid a letdown this time around. “We talked about not laying an egg and coming in and learning from Indiana to see what we can do better and really focusing in on what we wanted to do coming into this game.”
Indeed, even against an underwhelming Penn State squad, the Wildcats came out guns blazing. Primarily, though, their impressive display of offense, which largely fired on all cylinders, ran through senior forward Abi Scheid.
Scheid carried her team to victory in a career day for the three year captain. She finished with 24 points on 8-of-9 shooting, went 6-6 from behind the arc, added seven rebounds and scored her 1000th career point. You can’t ask for a much better day from your leader, who has now shot 62 percent from three since the Iowa matchup (and is all the way up to 48 percent on the season).
“I’ll always remember this day,” Scheid said postgame. “I think 1000 points is a great milestone, and a cool club to be a part of. I think any player would feel good after shooting 100 percent from three....I work a lot on my shot at practice and outside of practice. It’s great to see it pay off.”
Behind her 11 first-quarter points, the Wildcats came out especially strong. Her 1000th point was scored just minutes into the game on the first three she connected on, jumpstarting the team into taking a 13-2 lead only five minutes in.
The Minnesota native quickly connected two more times from behind the arc to give Northwestern a 24-7 lead after the first. A break in the action did not stop Scheid from coming out just as hot in the second quarter, connecting on yet another three to stun the Nittany Lion defense.
But when Penn State fought back with a 7-0 run to cut the lead to 15, it was Northwestern’s guards stepped up to put a quick end to the momentum burst. A pair of Veronica Burton layups and a quick six points from Pulliam gave the Wildcats the 45-19 lead at the half.
According to her, when Scheid opened a third consecutive quarter with yet another three, she knew she was on. She continued to hit from all areas, as Penn State simply had no answer for her. While the senior continued to hold the spotlight, Pulliam, who had struggled the past three games and was shooting just 21 percent from the field since Iowa, was ready to shake it up.
She became the only other Wildcat besides Scheid to connect from three, hitting two NBA-range three-pointers to rack up 10 points in the quarter – a much needed confidence booster for Northwestern’s star. She finished the day with 19 points on 50 percent shooting, five rebounds, and three assists.
“You’ve got to have her on the floor,” Joe McKeown said about Pulliam after the game, reflecting on the diversity in her recent performances. “Her presence alone forces teams to put their best defender on her. She’s so smart even when the ball is not going in. She has amnesia. She could be 0-for-10 and finish the game 10-for-20. Her presence inspires our team. She’s a great leader. She’s always going to find a way for us to win.”
By the fourth quarter, the game was well out of reach, allowing Pulliam and Scheid only a bit more time to pad their stats before the bench relieved the starters. The latter left the game to a standing ovation, with her parents proudly in the crowd supporting their daughter in her incredible achievement.
With her Dumbledore-esque wisdom and leadership abilities (as were so elegantly portrayed in the team’s viral Harry Potter Puppet Pals TikTok, brainchild of Byrdy Galernik, her roommate), Scheid represents both where this program has been and where it is going.
“Coming into college, I was strictly a center,” she said when asked about being used a bit more often in smaller lineups this year. “I probably shot less than 10 threes in my high school career, which is crazy. I think that attests to what this program can do for you.”
Scheid went from barely stepping beyond the arc to becoming one of the most prolific three-point shooters in program history. The Northwestern record for best three-point shooting percentage in a season is 44 percent, and she is not only well clear of that, but currently sits at eighth in the country in the category (min. 40 attempts).
Her strides are representative of how far the team as a whole has come. Even when Pulliam hasn’t hit her shots, the improvements she has made defensively and even offensively, with her newfound ability to step beyond the arc with relative consistency, provide a new dimension for the Wildcats.
Abbie Wolf has grown into her role as the starting center. Burton and Sydney Wood are not only two of the best perimeter defenders in the country, but both also hold assist-to-turnover ratios that are among the top 30 in the country. Jordan Hamilton has work left to do, but is starting to come into her own in her role as the first player off the bench, and Courtney Shaw has quickly become a more-than-capable backup center.
No matter what the rankings that come out later this afternoon say, this team’s goals are all within reach. And if yesterday’s shellacking was any indication, they aren’t about to let whatever accolades they’ve achieved to date change anything about their approach or their team identity.
“We’re still going to have the mindset that we’re the underdog and still play with a chip on our shoulder,” said Scheid.
“It’s win or nothing this year,” Pulliam added.
“We want to win the Big Ten. We want to make the NCAA Tournament. We don’t have time to think about the last game.”