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A special team, a special season, and the Big Ten Championship a year-plus in the making

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Northwestern’s ferocity and perseverance led them to the promised land. It all started back in the 2019 WNIT.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Iowa vs Northwestern Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

EVANSTON — When Northwestern walked off the court after a losing effort in Tucson, Arizona on April 6, 2019, they did so vowing not just to win their next big game, but to make that game as big as possible.

“We left the WNIT championship saying that we didn’t want to be here again,” senior Abi Scheid reminisced. “We put our mindset to making the NCAA tournament and working towards that instead of going [back].”

Clearly, though it wasn’t in the setting the team had hoped for, the postseason run was beneficial for Northwestern at many levels. It brought the group together and provided a firm understanding that the team could compete in high-pressure end-of-season/postseason scenarios.

“Our bucket list didn’t include Toledo, Ohio, Harrisonburg, Virginia... but what it did was bond us and it taught us we could steal games,” head coach Joe McKeown added to Scheid’s comments. “To win five games, and [especially] the way we did it, really helped us and when we came back for the summer they wanted to build off that, but they didn’t want to go back.”

It was truly a wild ride in March of 2019, as the ‘Cats pulled off miraculous win after miraculous win to somehow keep their season alive until the championship. Three road wins and two one-possession wins led the group to the final in Arizona, where the team fell short to the quickly-rising Wildcats (Pac-12 version). No matter the final result, though, the run provided some initial true proof of concept: displaying that change was on the horizon in Evanston.

“We came in this summer and there was this work ethic and this mindset and the freshmen came in and bought into it,” senior forward Amber Jamison said. “Everybody was just working towards the same thing.”

Any observer early in the season could see that this was a team that had a unique focus, a mindset that required the same intensity for every game. Add in the oft-referenced (especially by Veronica Burton, Jordan Hamilton, and Lindsey Pulliam) common goal of a Big Ten Championship, and the result was a tenacious group that willed itself to wins, going into hostile road environments time and again and clawing out necessary victories, grinding for every inch even as they improved significantly throughout the heart of conference play en route to that crown.

McKeown, who had been dropping hints about his excitement all offseason, said it first hit him just how good this team could be as early as the third game of the season.

“We had a game at Duke where all of a sudden we went from a tie game, we hit five threes in a row and all of a sudden we’re up 25. I’m like, did we just do that in Cameron?”

A keen-eyed onlooker could point to countless moments that defined this team and their tenacity, but it all comes back to the foundation that was set 12 months ago, when a Northwestern squad that could’ve been on an early spring break never stopped fighting to play more basketball.

“Other teams were trying to get the season over with,” McKeown said. “The way that we [competed] was more important than the scores. It left a chip on their shoulder.”

That chip on Northwestern’s shoulder isn’t gone just yet, and the squad knows that it hasn’t quite reached the peak of the mountain it aimed to climb. But rest assured, the postseason run this time around will have nothing to do with the letters WNIT. Just ask McKeown.

“We’re not going back, we don’t want to go back.”

“But we’re not done yet [either].”