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Riding hot streak, #18 Northwestern readies for battle with mercurial Rutgers

The two best defenses in the Big Ten are headed for a pivotal Wednesday night matchup.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 07 Women’s Northwestern at Maryland

There is to be no respite down the stretch for Northwestern women’s basketball (22-3, 12-2 Big Ten).

After escaping with three wins from a brutal stretch over the course of last week, including difficult matchups against Michigan (on the road) and a feisty Nebraska side playing for their postseason hopes, the Wildcats are set for their fourth game in 10 days tonight against the defense-heavy Rutgers Scarlet Knights (18-7, 8-6).

The last time these two teams met, all the way back on December 28, 2018 (Northwestern has played each of the other 12 Big Ten teams more recently than Rutgers, meeting Michigan and Michigan State four times each in the intervening period), the game was a true slog.

The Scarlet Knights found a way to survive 45-41 in Piscataway despite NU having three shots to take the lead or tie in the final 35 seconds. Both sides combined to shoot 27 percent from the field in undoubtedly the ugliest game the Wildcats played all season.

Only Lindsey Pulliam and Rutgers’ Ciani Cryor (now at Texas Southern after being kicked off the team for a “violation of team policy”) finished in double digits, at 16 and 13 respectively, with Scarlet Knights star Arella Guirantes finishing a woeful 2-15 and the four Northwestern starters aside from Pulliam shooting a barely better 5-28.

This year, like last, the two teams come in ranked first and second in points per game allowed in Big Ten play. Unlike last season, though, when the ‘Cats edged Rutgers out at the end of the season in the category, the Scarlet Knights are allowing 58.6 ppg to NU’s 60.3, including just 52.3 in their last six games (during regulation), a stretch across which they somehow went 3-3.

Guirantes leads the way offensively for veteran head coach C. Vivian Stringer’s squad, averaging a hair over 19 points per game in 36.4 minutes per contest and having scored in double figures in each of the team’s contests over the course of the season. Most recently, she tallied 24 of the team’s 62 as they suffocated Michigan in an impressive 62-41 blowout on Sunday. The ball-dominant wing has a similar game to that of Pulliam, thriving primarily on getting to the line and knocking down midrange jumpers.

Her primary support within Rutgers’ thin rotation is provided by Tekia Mack and Khadaizha Sanders, the only other two double digit scorers for the Scarlet Knights. The 6’1” Mack, nominally a guard though she can defend 1-5, is both the most impressive member of the team’s defense and an important offensive focal point, putting up 12 points, seven rebounds, two steals (both team-highs), and a block per contest on 54 percent shooting from inside the arc.

Meanwhile, Sanders initiates the offense, scoring 10.2 per game and adding 4.2 assists. The 5’7” point guard is second on the team in minutes per game at 34, and will be primarily tasked with navigating Northwestern’s Blizzard defense in order to get Guirantes and co. the shots they need without turning it over excessively.

Northwestern, coming off of two of their worst offensive days of the season, will have to hope that their shooting strokes have recovered enough to put up points against the feisty Rutgers defense. Pulliam is 2-23 in her last two games, and Abi Scheid and Abbie Wolf are fresh off of their worst offensive performances in conference play.

But if Veronica Burton and the rest of the backcourt can stay away from excessive live-ball turnovers (Rutgers forces 17.3 per contest, third in both that mark and turnover margin to only Maryland and Northwestern in Big Ten play), the Wildcats should be able to key on Guirantes defensively, putting the onus squarely on their own offensive execution. Let’s hope that, unlike the last time these teams met, the ‘Cats’ scorers come ready to play.

The game tips off at 7 p.m. Central at Welsh-Ryan Arena, and will be broadcast on BTN+ and WNUR Sports (online radio stream available via the link).