INDIANAPOLIS — Beating a team three times in a season is hard.
Northwestern (26-4, 16-2 Big Ten) knew that in principle coming into Friday night’s Big Ten Tournament Quarterfinal clash with Michigan (21-10, 10-8), but the ensuing loss made it painfully clear.
In NU’s two previous games against the Wolverines, the only thing differentiating the two squads were short second-half bursts from the Wildcats to lift them to single-digit victories. And for a while, it seemed like Northwestern was writing a script familiar to what fans have seen over the past month and a half: hang around in a less-than-perfect first half and then take control in the second.
At Bankers Life Fieldhouse, however, there was no such second half magic to be mustered. Instead, it was Michigan that used some mini spurts and timely buckets to preserve the upset win and send Northwestern packing.
Veronica Burton got in early foul trouble (just as she did at Michigan in the second matchup), Sydney Wood was fighting some injuries, and Lindsey Pulliam could not shake the aggressive guarding of Akienreh Johnson. That, combined with off days from Abi Scheid and Abbie Wolf, was more than enough to put a stop to Northwestern’s nine-game winning streak.
Michigan head coach Kim Barnes Arico emphasized postgame that her team did a great job both limiting Pulliam’s opportunities and forcing her to attempt tough shots, while also taking the entire Northwestern offense out of rhythm. In the teams’ first meeting in Evanston, NU’s leading scorer hung 32 points, but in their last two meetings, Pulliam shot a combined 4-of-22 for just 13 points.
“Amy Dilk went 94 feet against Veronica Burton, and I thought once she took the ball out of her hands, that changed — they couldn’t get into their flow of what they wanted to do because she typically brings it out,” Barnes Arico said. “I thought that really helped us down the stretch.”
Burton said postgame that it was a bit disruptive and made her work harder each possession, but added that she thought her team was able to adapt to it. Nevertheless, while the point guard led the Wildcats in scoring with 15 points and added seven assists to go with three steals, Wolf, Scheid, and Pulliam combined for just 17 points on 6-of-24 shooting, and the entire NU offense struggled mightily down the stretch.
As Barnes Arico alluded to, so much of Northwestern’s offense thrives off of the sure-handed Burton, whether she is driving to the basket, launching a step-back three or setting up her teammates as the squad’s assist leader. There have been nights when Pulliam or her backcourt partner haven’t been highly effective, but it is at those moments when NU’s depth has shown itself time and again.
Friday, the necessary support came, at least initially, from Jordan Hamilton and Courtney Shaw. The two brought impressive energy and defense and managed to account for 15 points in the first half. However, things began to break down after halftime, and the various lineup changes that Michigan threw at the Wildcats kept Northwestern’s deeper rotation members in check.
And as the night wore on, the depth couldn’t save the Wildcats from their failure to execute the little things. When NU had chances to take control of the game or keep it close, it failed to seize them. The Wildcats hit just 10-of-19 free throws and could not buy a bucket from beyond the arc.
Michigan, on the other hand, shot 54 percent from three and made two key triples well into the second half — a heave by Maddie Nolan at the end of the shot clock and a corner bank make from Hailey Brown — that were insurmountable.
“We tried to take away their inside game defensively, and they hit some big threes,” McKeown said. “They were just backbreakers when they made them because we’d just come down, maybe score, and you’ve got to make free throws in these games.”
Burton and Hamilton concurred that NU needed to do a better job of helping itself.
“Something that we highly emphasize all the time is we have to make our lay-ups and our free throws. And those are two areas I feel like in this game where we kind of dropped the ball a little bit,” Hamilton said.
McKeown was quick to remind everyone that this is only his team’s fourth loss this year and that it will benefit from both two weeks of rest before the NCAA Tournament as well as generalized learning from the loss. He agreed that Michigan’s familiarity with NU served the Wolverines well, and said that it will be good for his team to play outside the league in the tourney, largely thanks to the uniqueness of The Blizzard as a defensive strategy.
“We played a team that we’ve played two times already, and it’s really tough to beat the same team three times,” Hamilton said. “There was a lot of things that went on that we’re going to learn from and we’re going to implement in our practices.”