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Northwestern defense flexes muscles as Wildcats prepare for brunt of Big Ten play

In Tuesday’s easy rout against Eastern Kentucky, the NU women once again displayed the merits of The Blizzard.

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EVANSTON, Ill. — As they cruised towards victory on Tuesday afternoon in their final non-conference game of the regular season, the 15th-ranked Wildcats put together one of the most striking statistical halves of basketball this season.

Committing just four turnovers while forcing Eastern Kentucky into 20 with the help of a newly tweaked three-quarter court press, and even amassing 18 offensive rebounds to a measly three for the Colonels, Northwestern took an ungodly 28 more shots than their opponents over the first 20 minutes, putting them on pace to set a full-game record in that category. But while the impressive rebounding diminished during a much more sedate second half, NU continued to accrue forced turnovers at a frantic pace, just as they have done all season.

“For us this year, we’re a bit of a different team, so we’ve changed some of our defensive schemes, but I think we have to be able to press and control the clock and turn people over,” said head coach Joe McKeown. “We have the quickness to do that.”

Thus far in this young season, that has certainly born itself out. The Wildcats are forcing the most turnovers in the country at 26.2 per game, after the Colonels finished with 33, and are well ahead of the pack in average turnover margin at +14.2. Last year, Northwestern was strong in both metrics as well but never to quite this degree: that difference leads directly to 14 more possessions that end in shots per game, of particular significance when either your offense is foundering or the opponent is hitting shots at an unlikely rate, each of which happened during multiple stretches on Tuesday.

Forty points off turnovers played a significant role in weathering the storms, including 25 in the first half, enough to outscore Eastern Kentucky entirely with that category alone. Playing into that statistic and its impact on the game is the prevalence of live-ball turnovers and their likelihood of leading directly to points among both Northwestern’s half-court and pressure defenses.

The Wildcats are second in the country in steals at 14.8 per game, led of course by Veronica Burton’s 4.5 per contest. She accounted for four against EKU to go along with her game-high 17 points, and Lindsey Pulliam and Sydney Wood each added the same amount to double-digit point totals while Jordan Hamilton accounted for three takeaways.

“The other thing that you have to have [for a successful attacking/pressure-heavy defense] is players with great basketball IQs,” McKeown added. “Sydney, Veronica, Jordan, Lindsey, they read. And that’s what happens when you’re in those tight presses: reading the next pass, reading what’s gonna happen two passes from there. That’s where I think those guys are really good.”

That power of premonition was in full effect on Tuesday, albeit primarily against an Eastern Kentucky backcourt that was demonstrably overmatched on that end of the floor in particular. But the Wildcats have carried it out, though perhaps slightly less aggressively, in two conference games already, combining to force an impressive 48 turnovers against Minnesota and Purdue.

Still, the semi-positionless starting lineup which allows this increased defensive fluidity, featuring the four aforementioned players and dynamic center Courtney Shaw, all of whom have combined to average 13.2 steals per game themselves, has at least one glaring potential weakness. The five upperclassmen average out to 5-foot-10 in height, with Shaw only just reaching the 6-foot barrier. And though last year they faced such threats individually and occasionally as a group, these starters have not yet faced a polished interior threat on either end of the floor.

That will change quickly enough after they return to Evanston post-Christmas. First, Nebraska and talented shot-blocker Kate Cain, who McKeown stressed his respect for as one of the all-time best at the program and in the conference in that regard, welcome the Wildcats to Lincoln on New Year’s Eve. As a team, the Huskers don’t appear to pose an undue test, but Cain will thoroughly challenge the interior shot-making of Northwestern’s small-ball lineup, just as she did to the whole team in last year’s UNL upset bid.

And of course, looming much larger is 17th-ranked Michigan’s trip to Welsh-Ryan on January 3. Naz Hillmon is not only definitively the best big in the Big Ten, but among the nation’s elite, and she should continue to give Northwestern fits from both the high and low post. Hillmon’s game is polished in every offensive aspect, even including rebounding, and how effective the Wildcats can be in doubling her and taking away her passing opportunities, particularly with fellow big Hailey Brown, will tell us a lot about this promising but undersized defense’s ceiling.

Though they head into the holiday break coming off a mediocre performance, Northwestern’s offense appears to be blossoming rather nicely behind Veronica Burton’s all-world play. But defensively, the Wildcats may just have it in them to somehow kick things up a notch from last year’s success. If their veteran, dynamic starting lineup’s spearheading of apparent improvements continues, the approaching Blizzard will be suffocating, and even more fun to watch than ever before.