EVANSTON — A title thirty years in the making.
In front of a raucous crowd of students on Senior Day, the Northwestern Wildcats (26-3, 16-2 B1G) defeated in-state rival Illinois (11-18, 2-15 B1G) 75-58 to clinch a share of the Big Ten regular season title, its first since 1990. The win marked the team record in wins and conference wins, capping a historic regular season.
Two of Northwestern’s seniors, Abbie Wolf and Abi Scheid, scored a combined 31. Veronica Burton added 13 points and had five steals as well while Lindsey Pulliam scored 17.
The ‘Cats came into this game heavily favored against an Illini team who had lost 11 of its last 12 tilts, and Joe McKeown’s squad featured a rare change in the starting lineup: senior Byrdy Galernik featured for the first time this season.
Senior Abi Scheid opened the scoring with a triple, bringing the Welsh-Ryan crowd to life. The Illini kept pace early with good three-point shooting of its own, hitting three of their first four from beyond the arc. The two teams were locked in a 9-9 tie after five minutes.
The ‘Cats came out of the stoppage with Sydney Wood replacing Galernik. A Lindsey Pulliam triple and an Abbie Wolf and-1 broke the deadlock. Wood’s influence on the defensive side of the ball could not have been understated, as Northwestern’s blizzard defense forced three turnovers in the final five minutes of the quarter. Combined with a 7-0 run in the final three minutes, the ‘Cats found themselves up 21-13. Scheid, Pulliam and Wolf accounted for all the scoring in the first period.
NU’s defensive masterclass continued into the second period, as they didn’t allow the Illini to score for the first 5:10 of the 2nd while stretching the lead to 28-15. The Illini shot 1-8 in this stretch but made some shots along the way to remain in arms’ length of NU. A Jada Peebles triple cut the ‘Cats lead to 11 with 3 seconds left in the second quarter, and the ‘Cats went into the locker room up 36-25.
Illinois cut Northwestern’s lead to six with a 10-0 run straddling late second and early third quarters. But three Abbie Wolf and-ones in a mere two minutes stopped the scoring drought in its tracks, pumping up the Welsh-Ryan crowd once again. An 8-0 run in just over a minute, highlighted by a Veronica Burton triple, put the ‘Cats up 50-34 midway through the third period.
The rest of the quarter saw the ‘Cats and Illini trade buckets, highlighted by an acrobatic drive and score from Burton, with the score 60-42 heading into the final period.
As the fourth quarter got under way, the atmosphere at Welsh-Ryan shifted to party-mode in anticipation of the title clinching moment. Pulliam and Burton were both substituted for Galernik and Laya Hartman in the closing stages of the game, and the fully packed bottom bowl of the stadium responded with yet another raucous cheer.
When the clock struck zero, fans stormed the court in celebration of the season-long performance, and it just felt good to be a ‘Cats fan.
The Big Ten tournament kicks off next week, and the ‘Cats will debut on Friday thanks to the double bye they have earned. For now, it’s time to enjoy a historic achievement in Evanston.