EVANSTON — The list of teams that could win a basketball game while shooting 28.8% from the field, including a combined 5-for-24 performance from their two leading scorers, is a very short. Fortunately, as we now know beyond a shadow of a doubt, Northwestern’s name is front and center on that list.
The ‘Cats (22-3, 12-2 Big Ten) completed a thrilling comeback win over Nebraska (16-10, 6-9) on Sunday, erasing a nine-point second half deficit to win 60-56 over the Cornhuskers despite the unfortunate aforementioned numbers.
The team showed a refusal to lose in pushing forward through adversity, yet was also remarkably flexible, implementing a rare small-ball lineup that helped turn the game in their favor down the stretch. As they continue to show, it’s the combination of those two somewhat opposing ideologies that makes this team a legit contender both in the conference and come tournament time.
The one starter who did actually play up to her usual standards was Veronica Burton, who finished with 21 points, including 15 of her team’s first 20 in the second half. Even though the sophomore captain didn’t have a phenomenal shooting day herself, she willed herself to the foul line consistently, where she went a perfect nine-for-nine.
After the game, the star point guard addressed how her whole team willed itself to victory.
“We knew that we had to rebound the ball in order to get this win,” said Burton, due to the fact that Nebraska came into the game as the best rebounding team in the conference. “And honestly everyone was crashing, it wasn’t just one person. It was all around, all five of us really going after it.”
The Wildcats ended up with 16 offensive boards to the six of Nebraska, especially impressive given the height disparity they were working at for much of the contest. Of course, one of the reasons those boards were so important was that Lindsey Pulliam had one of the worst shooting games of her career, shooting a ghastly 1-for-13 from the field.
However, she too did what was necessary in the end, grabbing a team-high 10 rebounds, hitting some clutch free throws of her own, and fearlessly knocking down the game-winner (her first made field goal of the game!) with only 30 seconds remaining.
Most players don’t want to take the 13th shot having missed their first 12. Then again, this is Lindsey Pulliam we’re talking about.
“She doesn’t worry about the shots that happened before,” said Abi Scheid on Pulliam, “She practices so much that it’s like muscle memory. She can hit that shot at any time.”
But the best Pulliam quote of the night has to go to this classic from Northwestern head coach Joe McKeown.
On Pulliam: "She went up to me at the last timeout and said 'Coach, just give me the ball.' I didn't go to Northwestern, but I'm smart enough to get it to her."— Inside NU (@insidenu) February 16, 2020
(Note: Pulliam has been quoted as saying that before all 4 of her game-winning or -icing shots this year.)
It’s great and all to see that will to win and the team’s beautiful chemistry shine through in key, clutch moments, but, one might ask, what did the ‘Cats do strategically to tie the game and get themselves to the point of Pulliam’s game-winner?
Well, tired of seeing Nebraska center Kate Cain own Abbie Wolf, who finished 2-12 from the field (her worst shooting performance of the season), in the paint to the tune of seven total blocked shots (and four steals!), McKeown decided to break out the rarely used small-ball lineup of Burton, Pulliam, Scheid, Sydney Wood and Jordan Hamilton for an extended period.
It essentially turned the game around, as the ‘Cats outscored Nebraska by a whopping 24-12 margin in the 10+ minutes that said group of five shared the court.
The move hinged on the ability of Scheid to physically hold her ground in the post while also drawing Cain and other bigs away from the basket.
“I always like playing the five, going back to my old roots,” said the power forward. “She [Cain], being one of the bigger posts in the Big Ten, is a challenge to play, but I was enjoying that challenge.”
Scheid also probably enjoyed how the lineup switch generated consistent easy looks for her from behind the arc, as displayed here:
It doesn’t matter that she missed that particular shot. Scheid is still shooting a ludicrous 48.8% from three on the season, and this was just one of those days, a phenomenon that any great shooter has experienced.
What’s much more important is how the defense was so easily manipulated with no Wildcats taking up space in the post area. Even with the Huskers giving Wood the Tony Allen-treatment by having Cain play off of her, the attack by Hamilton forced the defenders to rotate until Cain was the one who was supposed to close out on Scheid.
She didn’t even come close to getting out of the paint in time, surrendering a wide-open triple to the best shooter in the country. And similar looks throughout the fourth quarter generated wide open jumpers for Byrdy Galernik and, especially crucially, Burton and Jordan Hamilton. Great stuff.
After all, we’re all going to remember Pulliam’s fadeaway to give the ‘Cats the lead, but we certainly shouldn’t forget about Hamilton’s massive three to tie the contest with less than two minutes to go, as she too benefitted from the inherent spacing of a small-ball lineup.
Burton wastes no time exploiting her advantage after Leigha Brown switched on to her. The paint is free of all Wildcat teammates that might clog things up or prevent her from driving in the first place, and Nebraska’s Sam Haiby commits the fatal sin of helping off of a good three-point shooter despite the guard being one pass away from said shooter.
In an ideal world for the Huskers, Haiby stays home as Cain helps off the poor-shooting Wood to deter the Burton layup, especially given the current composition of Northwestern’s lineup. But not a ton of teams in college basketball are willing to go to small-ball the way the Wildcats did yesterday, which undoubtedly threw her off. Haiby was put in an unfamiliar situation by the Northwestern offense, and they made her pay for her mistake.
Moving forward, we should expect to see more of the small-ball lineup, especially as the competition level ratchets up.
It’s a wrinkle that is not only rare at the college level, but becomes deadly when your nominal five in Scheid also doubles as the most dangerous shooting threat in the nation.
But for now, McKeown and his squad aren’t getting too far ahead of themselves. They realize that there is still a lot of work to be done for this team to accomplish everything it is hoping to. When pressed about what it might be like for this team to host the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament, as they are seemingly on track to do, the head coach had a simple response:
“We got Rutgers Wednesday night. That’s the only thing on our plate right now.”