After earning a double bye and the #2 seed thanks to the record-breaking regular season that led to them earning a share of the regular season Big Ten Championship, 11th-ranked Northwestern women’s basketball (26-3, 16-2) will kick off the Big Ten Tournament in Friday’s quarterfinals against, in some ways, the toughest opponent they could have reasonably expected.
For the third time this year, the Wildcats will do battle with Naz Hillmon and seventh-seeded Michigan (20-10, 10-8) after the Wolverines snuck past tenth-seeded Nebraska 81-75 on Thursday behind a 24-10 third quarter (and, more specifically, a 13-2 run to begin the second half).
Northwestern came out on the right side of two knock-down, drag-out regular season fights against Michigan, largely thanks to some second half magic of their own.
First, after a hotly contested first three quarters, and with Hillmon answering every Wildcat push, NU came out on top when the two teams did battle at Welsh-Ryan on January 30th thanks to an 11-2 run between 5:56 and 1:48 of the fourth quarter to put the game away. That kickstarted Northwestern’s current nine-game winning streak, over which they have used second-half spurt after second-half spurt to put talented, pesky opponents away.
The two teams’ second meeting, in Ann Arbor, was no exception. Despite significant struggles with injuries, the Wolverines had a halftime lead that extended well into the third quarter before the Wildcats turned on the jets. This time, a 15-4 run from midway through the penultimate frame to the very end of it flipped the score from 43-38 Michigan to 53-47 Northwestern, and the Wildcats never looked back.
But to beat the Wolverines, who are almost certainly on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble but still hungry for a second signature win after their regular season destruction of #19 Iowa, for a third time will require a focused effort.
The aforementioned Hillmon, who put up 27 points, eight rebounds, and five assists while playing the entire game out of the post in the two teams’ first meeting, is back in full force after missing large swathes of the game in Ann Arbor due to a shoulder injury suffered during the second quarter. Despite battling foul trouble all game, the unanimous first team All-Big Ten forward managed 20 points, seven rebounds, and five assists against the Huskers to help key the second half comeback.
Equally crucial was point guard Amy Dilk, who averaged 13.5 points and 5.5 assists in Michigan’s two tilts with the ‘Cats. The second-team All-Big Ten sophomore exploded for 22 points and six assists and was a thorn in Nebraska’s side all game, leading the offense when Hillmon had to sit.
For Northwestern, Lindsey Pulliam’s performance will, as always, be crucial. The junior had her two most disparate performances of the season against Michigan, exploding for 32 to key the first win before succumbing to near-constant double teams and face-guarding and managing a conference play-low four points on 1-10 shooting in Ann Arbor.
If the Wolverines decide to take away Pulliam at all costs again, the entire Northwestern supporting cast will be called on to pick up the slack. In that aforementioned road win, each other starter in the lineup managed either 13 or 14 points, with Sydney Wood putting together the best second half of her career en route to 14 points on 4-4 shooting and Veronica Burton nailing a go-ahead and eventual game-winning step-back three with 2:35 to play.
But as any player or coach will tell you, beating any team, especially one as talented and tenacious as Michigan, three times in one season is incredibly difficult. Wolverine head coach Kim Barnes Arico will undoubtedly come out scheming after breaking out a super-big lineup (a front line of dangerous 6’3” shooter Hailey Brown, the 6’2” Hillmon, and 6’4” center Izabel Varejão with a backcourt made up of the 6’0” Dilk and 6’1” Akienreh Johnson) in the teams’ first matchup before the aforementioned shadowing of Pulliam in the second.
With fresher legs and the momentum a nine-game winning streak affords, Big Ten Coach of the Year Joe McKeown’s Wildcats will simply have to find a way to out-execute Barnes Arico and co. if they want to make any kind of significant run in the conference tournament.
The game tips off from Bankers Life Fieldhouse, where Inside NU will be providing coverage all weekend long, at 5:30 pm Central on BTN.