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Depth shines as Northwestern marches toward first Big Ten title in 30 years

The Wildcats displayed their second half prowess with an impressively balanced performance.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 13 Women’s Northwestern at Michigan Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In every game they play, Joe McKeown and his players talk about trying to hold opponents to under 60 points. So far this season, they’ve met their goal with room to spare, giving up an average of just 56.6 ppg.

Ninety-one ticks into the second quarter in Tuesday’s showdown in Columbus, that suffocating defense was nowhere to be found. The Buckeyes had rung up 23 points in just over a quarter, on pace to approach 80 for the game. That early defensive deficiency combined with an astounding 10 first-half turnovers from the Wildcats made for a remarkably sloppy half. Indeed, NU’s three point lead at the break can be attributed directly to Abi Scheid’s 11 points on just five shots.

As much as Northwestern has consistently impressed this year, avoiding any slip-ups while building up a resume that now features nine wins over RPI top 50 teams, its identity has evolved significantly. Early in January, the team blew double-digit leads in the second half to Minnesota and Purdue, and McKeown vowed his team would close better.

Over the latter half of the Big Ten schedule, NU has flipped that narrative and has become the team its coach hoped it would be: one that almost always finishes strong.

Against Michigan on January 30, the ‘Cats went back and forth with the Wolverines before closing the third quarter on a quick run to take a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. In the next game at Penn State, they trailed by one at the half before ripping off a 29-7 third quarter and cruising to victory. In four of their last five games, the Wildcats have put together less-than-perfect first halves or trailed early in the second before exerting their will.

The trait that puts this team over the top, allowing them to continually become stronger as the game progresses, is its depth and, most of all, impressive balance.

Roughly two weeks ago at Michigan, NU played another sleepy first half that featured nine turnovers and four players in foul trouble. To open the second half, unlikely scorer Sydney Wood (5.1 PPG) turned in her best career performance, pouring in 12 points on perfect shooting to keep her team in it before they finished the game on a 6-0 run to complete the season sweep.

Against Nebraska, the shots simply would not fall for the Wildcats, who made just 19 of 66 attempts. But there was Veronica Burton, who scored 15 of Northwestern’s first 20 points in the second half to engineer a dramatic comeback and allowed Lindsey Pulliam to score game-winning bucket.

Then it was Pulliam’s week to bear the torch. The junior showed why she so often needs the ball in her hands, shooting 62 percent from the field and totaling 55 points against Rutgers and Wisconsin. On the road in Madison, the Badgers hung around until mid-way through the third quarter, when NU’s top scorer kicked into another gear. She rattled off 13 of Northwestern’s 15 points in a span of just over five minutes to put the game out of reach.

Tuesday, the story came together once again as the Wildcats tied a school record for wins in a season with 25. Entering the second half up just three, it took until there was just 1:28 left in the third quarter for NU to seize an inch of opportunity and make Ohio State pay.

And pay they did.

Leading by just two at the time, the ‘Cats exploded for nine points, capped by this Pulliam buzzer beater from Dayton, to extend their lead to double digits going into the final period. Their lead never dipped under 10 in the fourth.

After the first quarter of Buckeye buckets, NU allowed Ohio State to score just 24 points in the game’s final 24 minutes. The aforementioned Northwestern breakout was part of an extended 18-3 run from 1:30 left in the third quarter to 3:00 left in the fourth, during which OSU didn’t make a field goal.

Even more impressive was how deep the Wildcats showed themselves to be. Veronica Burton and Lindsey Pulliam came into the night averaging a combined 38.8 points over the last five games. Pulliam tallied 16 but on just 4-14 shooting, and her backcourt partner scored just four points and was a -3 on the floor in plus-minus.

As is not new with this team, though, their arsenal of weapons allowed them to dig deep. Scheid went for a game-high 19, Sydney Wood missed only one shot and scored 12, Abbie Wolf was fairly efficient, and both Jordan Hamilton and Courtney Shaw provided valuable minutes off the bench.

There are concerns about this team’s potential fatigue late in the season, with its starters averaging north of 32 minutes per conference game, but the fact that it’s someone different stepping up on any given night lends confidence that this team is ready to win nearly any type of game.

Northwestern’s depth and balance has the program primed to capture its first conference title since the fall of the Soviet Union and its highest NCAA Tournament seed ever. Like any persevering fighter, the ‘Cats have only gotten stronger as the season has gone along.

In the words of Abi Scheid: “it’s gonna end with a bang.”