EVANSTON — The final buzzer sounded, and the packed stands emptied. Fans and players alike gathered around the trophy as streamers rained down on the court. The nets were cut down, and the emotional high continued.
No. 14 Northwestern women’s basketball (26-3, 16-2 B1G) had capped off their nearly perfect regular season campaign in style by cruising to a 75-58 Saturday afternoon win over Illinois, their ninth consecutive victory. In doing so, the Wildcats clinched program records for both wins in a season and conference wins in a season.
Oh, yeah, and they also got themselves a guaranteed share of the Big Ten regular season title.
For the first time since 1990, the ‘Cats can call themselves conference champions, having finished their regular season as strong as they started it. Having won a whopping 14 of their last 15, despite repeatedly facing some of the toughest the B1G has to offer, NU will head to Indianapolis next weekend on a high, with the opportunity to definitively state their case as the top team in the Big Ten.
Barring an unlikely loss to Minnesota later today, Maryland will share the regular season title with the ‘Cats, as both teams will finish with 16 conference wins and a split in head-to-head matchups. The Terps have won the title four of their five years in the conference and are the favorites to win the tournament as the presumptive one-seed.
However, Northwestern, thanks to its impressive recent string of accomplishments, makes a strong claim for the best team in the Big Ten. In almost certainly the best season in program history, the ‘Cats dropped just three games to now 16th-ranked DePaul, 18th-ranked Iowa and seventh-ranked Maryland.
The team also has the second-best volume three-point shooter in the country (Abi Scheid at 49 percent), the Big Ten leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio (T-Sydney Wood and Veronica Burton at 2.4), the Big Ten leader in steals per game (Veronica Burton at 3.3), and the third leading scorer in the conference (Lindsey Pulliam at 19 points per game) – and their resumé keeps on strengthening.
In Northwestern’s most recent victory, they dispatched Illinois with ease thanks to an all-around team effort. In their final home game, Northwestern’s seniors showed leadership as they have for the past four years – carrying their team down the stretch to a Big Ten Championship.
Byrdy Galernik got her first start all season. Injured forwards Bryana Hopkins and Amber Jamison led and supported from the sidelines. Meanwhile, Abi Scheid and Abbie Wolf put up one of the best combined games of their careers. Wolf finished with a team-high 21 points, nine rebounds and three blocks while Scheid put up 10 points, seven assists (tying a career high), and seven rebounds. In their final game at Welsh-Ryan, the two reminded the program and its fans just how much they will be missed.
While it was a standout day for the seniors, NU’s younger talent still found their time to shine. Veronica Burton and Lindsey Pulliam combined for 30 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists and a whopping eight steals. While losing Scheid and Wolf will be especially hard for this team, Pulliam, Burton and the rest of the youth’s success this season suggests a hopeful future for the ‘Cats.
Northwestern’s season is far from over, however. Next weekend, the Wildcats will travel to Indianapolis to compete in the Big Ten tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Thanks to their regular season efforts, they have earned a double bye and will make their post-season debut on Friday as a likely two-seed. They will face off against Michigan, Rutgers, or Nebraska, depending on how the final regular season and first-round games play out.
From then, the Wildcats will go on to the NCAA Tournament, for which this upcoming weekend could prove vital. Currently, bracketologists have Northwestern as the final #2 seed, but that position is precarious, and though the ‘Cats are a near-lock to host the first two rounds as a top-four seed at this point, anything can happen in the season’s final two weeks.
The final Big Ten tournament seeding will be determined following the remaining four conference games on Sunday. However, you can most likely catch Northwestern continue their record-setting season in the tournament on Friday at 6:30 p.m. ET.