EVANSTON — If there’s ever a chance for a letdown loss, it would be after you get ranked in the Top 20 for the first time in four years and take the floor without your head coach.
But Northwestern didn’t just avoid a letdown on Monday night. They put together one of their best performances of the season, cruising to yet another dominant conference win. With all the pressure being on them rather than their opponent, they were yet again up to the task.
The No. 19 Wildcats (20-3, 10-2 B1G) beat Michigan State (11-12, 4-8 B1G) 85-55 behind a scoring barrage from the backcourt of Lindsey Pulliam and Veronica Burton, who finished with 31 and 23 points respectively.
“I thought our guard play was tremendous,” said Coach Kate Popovec, who stepped in to lead the team in Joe McKeown’s place tonight, the head coach being sidelined with an illness. “Veronica really opened things up with her aggression and getting to the rack.”
As for Pulliam, Popovec was effusive in her praise of the star scorer.
“She’s an unselfish kid. We ask her to do that every night. She’s not just out there trying to get hers, that’s what we’ve asked her to do,” said the coach in what turned into a defense of Pulliam’s volume-over efficiency style. “She wants to win and she hates to lose, and that’s what makes her a special kid.”
Of course, the offense explosion is just an added bonus for a team that consistently plays some of the best defense in the country. The offense was spectacular tonight, but the fluidity and confidence this team plays with on the defensive end are what make them so fun to watch night in and night out.
In McKeown’s absence, the ‘Cats were still able to utilize the head coach’s signature blizzard defense to full effect, forcing 16 Spartan turnovers and scoring 24 points off those turnovers.
“Before the game, [Coach Popovec] told us that we’re a player-lead team and how much she trusted us, and obviously that means a lot to us. We know what we’re capable of,” said Pulliam.
All night, MSU struggled to get to the rim and constantly had their bigs clogging the same area in the key. This was a deep contrast to how things went for NU, as they knifed through Sparty’s defense, finishing the game with a 40-18 advantage on points in the paint, and a 22-11 edge in free throw attempts.
“I think that’s an emphasis of ours every day. We talked about being able to attack them, and we felt we could push and get in transition for some easy opportunities early,” said Popovec.
Despite an eight day hiatus from the floor, the Wildcats came out of the gates hot, building their lead early and never looking back.
“I think as soon as we started the game on both ends, we all just really trusted each other, and it was just a fun part game to be a part of,” said Burton.
Even when it feels like this team is facing some adverse circumstances, they rarely stumble, and more often than not, they somehow outperform all expectations.
Dealing with the pressure that builds during a breakout season can be way too much for some teams to handle. That hasn’t happened to Northwestern. Clearly, this isn’t just some team. It’s a great team that’s taking things one game at a time and seems poised to continue racking up impressive wins.
“The emphasis has always been just focusing on what we do, and again, I can’t credit these girls enough for their hard work, faith and belief in what we want to accomplish. They’re super dialed in,” said Popovec.
And as for Northwestern’s next game this Thursday against Michigan up in Ann Arbor?
“I think our girls are ready to go,” the assistant coach said.