As the clock hit zero at the end of the first quarter, No. 22 Northwestern (7-2, 5-2 B1G) had a four-point lead over Penn State. It shouId have been much larger. With the exception of Veronica Burton’s eight first-quarter points, the rest of the Wildcats combined for just six points of 2-of-9 shooting in the frame, while the Nittany Lions were shooting 43% from the field and 66% from three.
But as the second quarter began, NU’s stellar defense took over and led the Wildcats to a 67-50 road win, marking their third consecutive win in Big Ten play. Head coach Joe McKeown’s patented Blizzard defense held Penn State to eight points in the second period and limited them to 18% shooting, which allowed the ‘Cats to jump out to a 32-18 lead at the half.
Even as the NU offense has struggled compared to last year, its defense has remained strong, holding talented opponents well below their season averages. Sunday’s matchup replicated many of the Wildcats’ earlier performances, in which the defense has carried a developing offense.
Northwestern turned the ball over a season-high 22 times but made up for it by turning 27 Penn State giveaways into 24 points. It also held Penn State 26 points below its season scoring average and five percent below its season-long shooting numbers.
The typical defensive threats on McKeown’s squad shined again. Veronica Burton, Sydney Wood and Jordan Hamilton combined for 13 steals, as Burton passed her impressive season average of four steals per game by recording her fourth game of 5 or more steals this year. She also added a game-high 19 points.
“Whenever she does whatever you need, your team is due to win,” McKeown said of Burton. “Tonight, she scored, she played great defense, she broke their press. She does everything. That’s what makes her a great player.”
Courtney Shaw also played one of her best games of the season, dominating inside with a career-high 12 rebounds, including six on the offensive glass. NU is statistically the smallest team in the Big Ten and does not have a player in the top 25 in rebounding in the conference, but thanks to Shaw, it can still thrive defensively inside, even against a top-five rebounder in the conference like Johnasia Cash.
“For us to be successful, she has to have a presence defensively and on the glass, turning some of those offensive rebounds into buckets,” McKeown said about Shaw. “She did all of those things tonight, made a lot of hustle plays. She’s comfortable with her teammates in different defenses. She’s getting herself in a good position, blocking out, and she was really aggressive tonight.”
While Northwestern put forth more stifling defense, it played far from flawless offense. In addition to the aforementioned carelessness, it also shot just 19% from three and missed its final 13 triples after hitting its first three. NU ranks second to last in the Big Ten from behind the arc even with players like Burton and Lindsey Pulliam who have shown their ability to shoot from long range in the past.
Ultimately, NU has been able to persevere past these offensive issues against weaker Big Ten opponents. However, the ‘Cats enter a challenging stretch in which five of their next seven opponents were ranked at some point this season. Even in an imperfect game, the Wildcats dominated Penn State, but if they can’t resolve some of these persisting problems, opponents like Indiana, Maryland, Ohio State and Michigan will make them pay for their mistakes.
Northwestern has shown it can beat down on weaker opponents through defense, which it has done on numerous occasions this season. Now, it must show that it can compete against some of the conference’s top teams on both ends of the court.