EVANSTON — For the first five minutes of Thursday night’s opener against Eastern Illinois (2-3), 17th-ranked Northwestern (1-0) — or at least its defense — looked a little bit rusty. After nine months without live game action due to COVID-19, and attempting to integrate two new starters into a complex defensive framework, the Wildcats likely had some things they needed to work on.
By the time the end of the second quarter rolled around, any onlooker had likely been dissuaded of that notion. A +12 turnover margin, more points off those turnovers than EIU had amassed in total and an eight-minute-long 24-2 run, among other highlights, had Northwestern well on the way to levying a statement of intent at the expense of a relatively capable Eastern Illinois team.
“It being our first game back...we knew that we would pick it up,” said junior point guard Veronica Burton, who led the way on both ends of the floor with 21 points, six assists and five steals in just 24 minutes. “We just had to calm down, reevaluate, talk through our miscommunications and missed rotations. There was not a doubt in our mind that it would shift, and as you can see, it definitely did.”
Offensively, Burton and one of her backcourt mates, preseason Big Ten Player of the Year honoree Lindsey Pulliam, showed absolutely no indication of the layoff’s effects, combining for 19 points and six assists on 7-of-10 shooting in a high octane first quarter. Intriguingly, Pulliam would largely relinquish the reins on the offensive end over the course of the game, finishing with 18 points and six rebounds but attempting only 11 shots to do so.
“Just playing against each other for so long, it’s so exciting to be able to knock other people around,” the senior captain said. “We feed off each other, so if one person has energy, it's easy for us to get hyped up.”
As the team defense geared up in the second quarter, a somewhat unlikely duo led the action for the Wildcats. Junior center Courtney Shaw, who is set up to play a massive role this season with Abbie Wolf’s departure opening up the starting role and her status as the only non-first year natural frontcourt player on the roster, ran the floor and cleaned the glass tirelessly, racking up 11 points, six rebounds, and two blocks in a standout quarter of action.
Meanwhile, the other new starter, senior guard Jordan Hamilton, chipped in seven key points to the monster run that effectively put the game away before it reached halftime. Hamilton, who started at point guard her first year but has now been relegated to an off-ball role, didn’t have her most impressive offensive night, going just 3-for-10 from the field and giving away three turnovers, but her instincts and shooting ability shined through at key moments and will continue to be valuable to a team that is replacing a solid chunk of offense.
Sydney Wood made it five-for-five with regards to starters reaching double figures, driving hard and with repeated success while playing her trademark pesky defense to match Burton with five steals of her own while adding 14 points and seven boards. If she can maintain the relative offensive consistency she managed to flash against the Panthers, Wood will add an important non-primary scoring option to go along with her all-conference level defense.
The starters accounted for all 53 points in the first half, and each finished the game at least at a +26. Their dominance against a team that was a late made shot or two away from beating its first Big Ten opponent of the year, Minnesota, eight days prior was evident on both ends. In addition to the turnovers, EIU’s three leading scorers, which entered play averaging a hair under 60 points combined per contest, were held to just 21 points all day, with none reaching double figures.
But while the starters certainly appeared fresh and ready for Big Ten play, questions abound for NU, even in a cakewalk. McKeown, who also noted that he planned to continue getting plenty of use out of the smaller four-guard lineups that dominated the day, made a point of saying that the primary rotation displayed against EIU was far from a finished product.
On Thursday, the two subs to enter for meaningful periods of time before the game got out of hand were redshirt junior point guard Lauryn Satterwhite and true first year big Paige Mott. Satterwhite’s 19 minutes were relatively quiet, but she acquitted herself well in the role of the first guard off the bench, avoiding mistakes and playing solid defense. Expect her to continue as a primary bench weapon throughout the season, ideally providing as much mistake-free basketball and as big of a shooting threat as possible.
Mott, seeing college basketball for the first time, had a slightly rougher go of it. She showed plenty of flashes of potential as she looks to cement herself as Shaw’s backup, but fellow first year Anna Morris, the more highly-touted recruit of the pair who stands a few inches taller, will likely challenge Mott for minutes. Another contender for minutes is wing Laya Hartman, likely one of the players McKeown was referring to when he made a semi-cryptic reference to having “plenty of people who can play multiple positions,” which he said could lead to “crazy lineups.”
As the Wildcats head immediately into Big Ten play, they evaluate their anticipated use of bench players with little experience in in-conference rotation. Whether the Wildcats choose to ride smaller or they mix it up a bit more, the pressure is on the coaching staff more than ever with the limited time at their disposal to find the right ingredients to mix and match.
For now, Northwestern is 1-0, and an impressive 1-0 at that. Thanks to a capable starting lineup led by two legitimate stars in Burton and Pulliam, the first 20 minutes against Eastern Illinois showed exactly what this team is capable of: competing on a national scale. With the aforementioned Golden Gophers coming to town on Monday to get the Big Ten slate started, all that remains is to see how much of that potential this squad can unlock.