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Women’s Basketball: Northwestern’s offense retains its core but evolves outside

Pulliam and Burton will always be there, but this team clicked Monday night with four starters scoring in double figures.

The No. 15 Wildcats ran past Minnesota (1-3) — literally and figuratively — 80-51 on Monday night, improving to 2-0 in impressive fashion. NU outscored the Gophers 22-2 on the fast break, as they turned 21 forced turnovers into 26 points.

It’s a difference from last year, when NU slowed teams down on offense and ranked just 257th in the country at 69 possessions per 40 minutes. That was a team with Abbie Wolf and Abi Scheid, two bigs who could score and both brought different skillsets. While Northwestern through two games slots in 237th in America in pace, they’ve made an effort to push for more possessions. It isn’t yet a huge difference, but the Wildcats are averaging 71 possessions per 40 minutes, the most since the 2016-17 season, when Joe McKeown’s squad averaged 71.5 possessions.

Again, it’s very early in the season, but NU has started fast offensively, elevating its efficiency with its pace of play. The ‘Cats have an offensive rating, or points scored per 100 minutes, of 121, compared to 101.6 last year. With the departure of Scheid and Wolf, there were questions coming into the season of who would take some of the pressure off of guards Lindsey Pulliam and Veronica Burton, who combined for 30.4 points per game in 2019-20.

Make no mistake, the offense still runs through one of the Big Ten’s best backcourts. But as showcased against Minnesota, there are plenty of secondary scorers, especially in NU’s athletic, if small, lineup. Burton led all scorers with 20 points behind a stellar first half in which she didn’t miss a shot, while forward Sydney Wood poured in a career-high 19 points. The junior, known primarily for her defensive prowess, had never scored more than 14 points in a game, but McKeown said he challenged her to work on her scoring this offseason.

“I feel like her mindset this year is also understanding that she can score the ball at will,” Burton said. “And I genuinely believe that everyone on this team believes that, and it’s very difficult to stop her, you see it in practice every single day. So just kind of her mindset changing and being aggressive on the offensive end consistently as well has been huge for us.”

Wood and fellow junior Courtney Shaw, who at 6-foot is stepping into the center position previously held by the 6-foot-4 Wolf, have provided that energy allowing NU’s offense to flourish. Shaw is averaging 11.5 points thus far.

The Wildcats have continued to take care of the ball offensively. After ranking ninth in the country in assists with 18.2 per game and sixth in assisted shot rate with 68.7% of made baskets coming from a pass, NU has continued to share the ball. It assisted on 28 of 32 scores against the Gophers and has racked up 47 assists in just two games.

For a team that has relied on Pulliam to take 17 shots per game over the past two years, the Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year has helped her team even just being a threat without taking as many shots, her coach said.

“I don’t think we could have the year we had last year and the way we want to play this year without Lindsay making sacrifices,” said McKeown. “She could shoot anytime she wants, she’s got the green light. But she’s a playmaker, she just wants to win. There’s days I just want to let her go and see if she can get 35 or 40 because she probably could. You know she really cares about her teammates.”

While the centerpieces of this Northwestern offense remain Pulliam and Burton, the players acknowledge that things won’t simply be done the way they were before. Burton says that before she felt she focused on either scoring or distributing, but now it’s both. Her team-leading 20.5 points per game and eight assists per game speak for themselves, as does NU’s unselfishness.

“Our offense is doing a really good job of kind of spreading the points out and sharing the ball with each other,” said Wood. “I think we’re gelling really well, and we know how to play with one another. So I think that’s something that’s been a real positive for the first couple of games and something we hope to continue for the rest of the season as well.”