With the toughest stretch remaining on their schedule approaching, Northwestern is undeniably playing their best basketball.
The Wildcats (20-3, 10-2 Big Ten), winners of eight of their last nine contests, enter their Thursday tilt with Michigan (16-7, 7-5) having topped 80 points in each of their last three contests: blowout victories over Michigan State and Penn State, along with an impressive 81-73 win over these same Wolverines in Welsh-Ryan.
But facing Michigan at the Crisler Center has the potential to be a very different story. Tonight’s test, undoubtedly the toughest remaining for Northwestern in the regular season, will be a crucial one, as the Wildcats look to undo some unfortunate recent history.
“I have never won at Michigan. My freshman year we got our butt kicked there. It was super embarrassing,” said senior center Abbie Wolf this week.
That loss, though, pales in comparison to last year’s heartbreaking 79-78 overtime defeat.
“It’s gonna feel really good to get back on that court after leaving that loss there [in 2019],” Wolf continued. “It was a lot of missed free throws, a tough overtime. Something we definitely want to redeem.”
Indeed, Northwestern not only went 0-4 on potential game-sealing free throws in the final twenty seconds of regulation and overtime, but also missed three potential game-winning shots during the final five seconds of each period, with Jordan Hamilton’s buzzer-beating overtime floater lingering on the rim for what seemed like hours before eventually falling off.
In a regular season filled with difficult losses, that one was undeniably the toughest.
“I know we let one go,” added Lindsey Pulliam, Northwestern’s leading scorer. “There was not a moment in that game where I felt we were going to lose. So we go in [this time] with a chip on our shoulder. It’s not gonna be an easy game, they’re not just gonna lay down, so we just need to come in with confidence and focus on us.”
As Pulliam alluded to, the Wildcats have the chance to make things right this time around. After all, with their impressive victory two weeks ago, spurred by the junior scorer’s season-high 32 points, they already got some measure of revenge. But even in that impressive victory, some problems cropped up.
Or, perhaps, it might be more apt to say one problem. But that problem is a significant one. Naz Hillmon, who dropped 21 and 11 rebounds over just 25 minutes in Michigan’s 2019 win, played all 40 in the first tilt between these teams, and exploded for 27 points, eight rebounds, and five assists on just 14 shots.
Wolf, who put up 17 and 13 herself in last year’s Ann Arbor matchup and added 12 and 7 two weeks ago, is ready to keep last season’s Big Ten Sixth Player and Freshman of the Year from stuffing the stat sheet again.
“Naz dropped, what was it, 25, 27 [at Welsh-Ryan], so, definitely not gonna let her have that type of game. As soon as it ended, I knew we were gonna have to do more work in the post,” said the center, later adding that her and assistant coach Kate Popovec had worked extensively on limiting Hillmon’s ability to go baseline in particular.
But containing the 6’2” post player and focal point of the Michigan offense will not be so easy. After a slow (by her standards) start to Big Ten play, Hillmon is averaging over 23 points and 10 rebounds per game in her last five contests, including a 30-point, 10 board explosion against Iowa that earned the Wolverines their biggest win of the season to date.
And as Wolf stressed, only so much attention can be paid to the star sophomore. Michigan has other threats, namely point guard Amy Dilk, who bounced back from a tough start to tally 15 points and three steals against the ‘Cats the first time around and averages 11 points and 4.5 assists per game.
Hailey Brown, the most significant deep threat, and Akienreh Johnson, who struggled mightily in the teams’ first matchup but has been a solid contributor for the maize and blue all season long, are names to watch as well.
Still, as Pulliam stressed, the Wildcats will be ready this time around. And that includes their coach. Joe McKeown, who was off the sideline in Monday’s win over MSU due to illness, was already back in the building on Tuesday, though he may not actually have gotten much rest on his unusual day off anyways.
“He told us that [Abi] Scheid almost ended up owing him some money,” said Wolf. “When she made her big three, he threw something at the TV in excitement.”
Luckily for any and all members of the McKeown household, their patriarch will be back to the sideline tonight in Ann Arbor. And with an offensive arsenal that continues to grow, thanks to Pulliam catching fire, Veronica Burton finding her stroke while continuing to play fantastic defense, and Scheid and Wolf continuing to chip in consistently, his squad looks to be at the height of their powers heading into the most important game remaining on their schedule.
Tune in to watch the Wildcats try for some revenge at 6:00 p.m. Central on BTN+ or WNUR Sports.