After Northwestern’s disappointing Big Ten tournament quarterfinals loss to Michigan exactly three weeks ago, head coach Joe McKeown wrapped up his closing remarks by saying, “I wouldn’t want to play us.”
While many of his players hung their heads after being upset by the Wolverines in their postseason debut, McKeown’s statement embodied the hope that remained as his team geared up for its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2015.
His unit had valuable postseason experience with a run to the WNIT championship game last season, but it was entering unprecedented territory with a shot at the Big Dance coming up. Not a single member of this 2019-20 team had ever competed in the NCAA tournament before, and they would have the chance to play the first two rounds on their home court, likely as a three- or four-seed.
However, less than a week later, it all came to a sudden end.
The NCAA announced it would be canceling the remainder of winter and spring athletic competitions, leaving the ‘Cats’ hopes for tournament glory unanswered and a feeling of emptiness that resonated around the team and collegiate athletics as a whole.
“We all saw the email come in from Dr. Phillips, and we were all sitting in the film room,” Lindsey Pulliam said in a video released by the athletic department. “Once we all found out that the NBA suspended their season, we were like ‘it’s gonna be hard for us to have the tournament.’ In a sense, I tried to prepare myself for it, but at the same time it’s hard to prepare yourself that the season’s over so abruptly.”
The finish to this magical year was not the storybook ending the team and its fans hoped for, and that shock was especially heartbreaking for the seniors who led this team to its best season in program history. However, what the ‘Cats accomplished will go down in school history as the best regular season in Northwestern basketball history, and such a season showed just how far the program has come from a team that won just 12 games playing at Evanston Township High School two years ago.
Northwestern’s 2019-20 efforts resulted in the best record in program history at 26-4 overall and 16-2 in conference play. The squad earned their highest-ever final AP Poll ranking at 11th and came away Big Ten champions for the first time in three decades.
The day that confetti rained down on the Welsh-Ryan hardwood as the ‘Cats defeated Illinois to earn a share of the conference title is one that the team, the fans, and the school will remember forever.
“We think about it even more now just because of how our season ended,” Pulliam said. “That’s something that nobody can take away from us.”
Not only did NU dominate as a team, but multiple individual stars emerged into the national spotlight. Veronica Burton, commonly known as the “Backcourt Burglar”, proved that defense truly does win championships. As Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and an All-Big Ten second team selection, Burton led the conference in steals with 3.3 (!) per game and was second in assist-to-turnover ratio at 2.4.
Her backcourt partner Sydney Wood trailed close behind her in the latter category, finishing third in the conference with an A/TO ratio of 2.3, and was named an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention by the media thanks in large part to her exquisite defensive play. Together, the two sophomores led McKeown’s trademark Blizzard defense as it shut down some of the conference’s finest offenses and became one of the best defenses in the country.
Starting center Abbie Wolf also came into a crucial role this year to fill the gap in the paint left by Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah. After only starting one game in her first three seasons, Wolf started all 30 this year, led the team in rebounds and blocks, and earned an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention as well. She had huge shoes to fill in replacing a 1000+ career rebounder in Kunaiyi-Akpanah, and Wolf stepped into the starting role nicely, rounding out a solid career with a stellar senior season.
Finally, two Northwestern players earned more national spotlight than the rest: Abi Scheid and Lindsey Pulliam.
For much of the season, Scheid led the nation in three-point shooting percentage, although she finished second by the season’s conclusion. The senior sharpshooter set a new Northwestern record by making 47.7 percent of her shots from beyond the arc on the year. Additionally, she led the Big Ten in that metric, earned a selection to the All-Big Ten First Team and scored her 1000th career point. She was one of the most consistent facets of this star-studded roster.
As for Pulliam, she continued to prove why she is one of the top players in the nation. As the third leading scorer in the Big Ten, averaging 18.8 points per game, she led her team to numerous victories through her perseverance, deadly mid-range pull-up and late-game heroics.
Not only did she continue what she already had done so well during her first two years, but she improved one of the weaker aspects of her game tremendously: three-point shooting. By putting an emphasis on this aspect of her game in the offseason, she improved her accuracy from downtown by nearly doubling it — from 18.2 percent to 35 percent — in just one season.
“She’s been a consistent three-point shooter, which has made her such a tough cover because her mid-range game is as good as anybody I’ve ever coached, and her ability to get to the rim — she’s got a great feel — but now people have to guard her at the arc,” McKeown said. “It opens up her, but it opens up her teammates too.”
Pulliam’s efforts have certainly been noticed at the national level, as she was unanimously selected to the All-Big Ten First Team for the second consecutive year and was recognized as an AP All-American Honorable Mention for the first time in her career.
While the five starters were the heart and soul of this team, one of Northwestern’s biggest advantages was its depth. As was shown in several crucial conference clashes, especially those that took place on the road, the bench, led by Jordan Hamilton and Courtney Shaw, was crucial.
After starting the season with an injury, Hamilton nailed down the sixth-man role over the course of the season and was a major contributor throughout conference play. Shaw was an instrumental piece of the post rotation and provided more hustle than any player on the court, especially in terms of rebounding and defense. Like McKeown said early in the season, her significant improvements bode well as she prepares to step into a major role next year with both starting posts graduating.
Finally, senior guard Byrdy Galernik had some big moments of her own, including back-to-back games scoring double digits against DePaul and Boston College, giving her team life down the stretch. She even nearly brought NU back in its Big Ten Tournament loss.
While yes, this team is wildly talented and extremely well-coached (by the Big Ten Coach of the Year and finalist for Naismith Coach of the Year), their success can be credited to two main tenets.
First, everyone knew their role and was prepared to do their job. Not everyone on this team was the star, but that does not make their role any less important. Pulliam knew when she needed to have the ball in her hands. Scheid knew when she had to drill a crucial three. Shaw knew when she needed to get a big board. Everyone was prepared to do their job and do it well – and they did it all season.
Second, and most importantly, the team chemistry is unmatched both on and off the court. Whether it was making TikToks on road trips or successfully executing the blizzard defense – a style that requires the ultimate amount of teamwork and communication – the ‘Cats know how to function as a cohesive unit. If one person struggled, another immediately picked her up. It’s the selflessness and the team effort that led to such a high caliber of play.
Without a doubt, 2020 was Northwestern’s year. But though the ‘Cats cut down one net, forces beyond their control denied them the chance to cut down any more.
They by all means achieved regular season greatness, but if you know anything about this squad, it’s that they are not going to stop fighting until they earn the chance to play in the NCAA Tournament that was stripped away from them.
If history repeats itself in the slightest as we head into the 2020-21 season, I wouldn’t want to face them either.