EVANSTON — After a hard-fought but disappointing loss to no. 20 Maryland on Sunday, Northwestern, powered by an incredible showing from Lindsey Pulliam, returned to its winning ways Thursday night. The junior guard totaled a season-high 32 points, her most in two years and career-high for points in regulation, carrying the Wildcats to a crucial 81-73 victory against Michigan.
Thursday’s game was the team’s first in the aftermath of the death of Kobe Bryant, a player who defined an era of the men’s game and spent his last few years expanding the platform for women’s basketball.
Bryant’s life and career influenced Pulliam’s game as much as any other player who saw the floor Thursday. After emblazoning one shoe with “Mamba Mentality” and the other with “Mambacita” to show her respect, the small forward’s jump shots and stat line against Michigan were certainly Kobe-esque.
“That game was for Kobe Bryant, that guy means so much to me and I took a lot from him in terms in his mentality and some of the things in my game,” she told the media postgame. “Dr. Phillips [Northwestern Athletic Director] just said in the locker room that 24 plus eight is 32, so I don’t know what else to say.”
At times, Pulliam has struggled to find her shot this season, shooting 25 percent from the field at Minnesota, 16 percent against Purdue, and 23 percent at Indiana. Northwestern’s leading scorer made just 12 of 57 baskets over that three-game stretch. Though these Wildcats have shown they are balanced enough to win on nights when Pulliam can’t carry the load, this team reaches a new level when she’s shooting well.
And tonight, they needed every point: with star Michigan post Naz Hillmon putting up 27 points, eight rebounds, and five assists, Northwestern was forced to outscore the Wolverines down the stretch, something they haven’t done much of this season. Luckily, Pulliam was up the task, spearheading an offensive explosion across the final 13 minutes of the game, in which NU tallied a whopping 37 points.
Since the aforementioned cold streak early in the month, she has stepped her game up, averaging nearly 24 points over her last four games. Her 20-point efforts powered blowouts of Penn State and Michigan state, and her game-high 20 points kept Northwestern within arm’s length in the second half at Maryland.
No matter the situation, Pulliam has continued to shoot all season long. She has taken at least 16 shots from the field in every Big Ten game this season, and currently leads the country in total field goal attempts at 377. Her points per game average is up to a whopping 19.2, and she has scored double digits in each of the team’s last 17 contests.
So it isn’t exactly surprising that when Northwestern needed to match the points onslaught brought on by Michigan, they turned to Pulliam.
“Her middle name is Amnesia. Lindsey ‘Amnesia’ Pulliam,” head coach Joe McKeown said. “She can have stretches, and I’ve seen it, where she can go one for ten and she’ll make the next seven or eight. We started to do a better job of getting her the ball because again it doesn’t bother her, she’s going to take the next shot.”
And take the next shot she did. After a three-of-nine start to the game, Pulliam exploded in the second half, scoring 22 of her 32 points after the break. The Wildcats exposed Michigan’s big-heavy 2-3 zone, putting out a smaller lineup of their own and consistently getting the ball to their go-to scorer.
“I told the coaches give me the ball, actually,” Pulliam said. “I don’t know when it was, but I was just like ‘let’s close this thing out’ and that’s how it happened.”
Sydney Wood and Veronica Burton wreaked defensive havoc while combining for 12 assists, and Abi Scheid and Abbie Wolf each scored in double figures as crucial secondary elements of the Wildcat offense. But it was the junior who demands (and hits) just about every clutch shot this team takes that put it away.
As the month of January turns to February, and March quickly follows, it looks all but assured that the ‘Cats will reach the hallowed ground of the NCAA Tournament. If Northwestern wants to dance the month away, they’ll need more Pulliam performances like this one. Because when the junior is hitting her shots, this team is tough to stop.