EVANSTON, Illinois — Northwestern last took took on its in-state rival eleven months ago. When the final buzzer sounded, the Wildcats were Big Ten regular season champions and destined for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, a moment head coach Joe McKeown looked upon fondly after his squad dismantled the Fighting Illini 73-54 Thursday night.
NU’s fight to repeat as conference champions has had some bumps along the way. A lack of size in the front court and some lower shooting numbers underscore that this team isn’t built like the one that went 26-4, but in its first game against the Illini since that monumental afternoon at Welsh-Ryan Arena, No. 21 Northwestern (8-2, 6-2 B1G) seemed to recapture the confidence and poise which put it on the national stage in the first place.
The ‘Cats struggled early from the field, hitting only 43 percent of their field goals and turning the ball over three times in the first quarter. On the other end of the floor, the Illini mustered a mere five points thanks to stout defense led by Veronica Burton and Sydney Wood, reflecting the notion that McKeown has continually echoed throughout the season: “Don’t let your offense be your defense.”
The lynchpins of the Blizzard defense suffocated the Illini with the press. Burton, who finished the game without a turnover and leads the conference with an assist to turnover ratio of 3.3, added seven steals to bring her season total to 47, second-most in the nation. The Wildcats converted 22 Illinois giveaways into 25 points, right around their season average of 27 points.
“We know that with steals comes transitions, and with transitions come buckets,” senior guard Lauryn Satterwhite said.
Despite the Illini’s size advantage, the ‘Cats won the board battle on both ends of the floor. Courtney Shaw grabbed 11 rebounds and neutralized Illinois’ post threats, quietly asserting herself as Northwestern’s best front court player. Although Illinois does not have the talent of Michigan, a squad which utterly exposed Northwestern’s lack of size, perhaps Shaw’s emergence, combined with Burton and Wood’s tenacity on defense, grants NU the capability to stay competitive against some of the Big Ten’s toughest forwards.
Satterwhite said that what Northwestern gives up in size, it makes up for in speed. NU’s 10 points off turnovers nearly matched Illinois’ first half scoring total firmly, but the Illini briefly caught fire from beyond the arc and cut a 15-point halftime lead to nine halfway through the third quarter, forcing McKeown to call timeout.
Right after the quick break, Northwestern scored six fast-break points, re-upping its lead to 15. And so emerged Lindsey Pulliam.
The Wildcats’ most decorated offensive weapon has not been as efficient this season, with her three-point percentage down nearly 15 points from last year while she’s struggled to dominate as NU’s primary scorer.
She began Thursday’s contest in a similar fashion, with a pedestrian four points on 2-for-8 shooting in the first half. But when things got tight for a moment, the Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year took over. She scored a whopping 19 points on 8-of-12 shooting in the third quarter, matching her season-high single-game point total in one ten-minute period. She also contributed on the boards, picking up three offensive rebounds which led to two putback layups.
For Pulliam, that stretch boosted her confidence, adding to a third quarter which McKeown said that the team played at a level he knows they can continue to play.
A fourth straight conference victory furthers Northwestern’s momentum as it heads into an important test against No. 16 Indiana on Sunday. The Hoosiers, whom NU beat in dramatic fashion last January in overtime, return all five starters and present a measuring stick for letting Northwestern know if it can defend its conference title.
“I think this year, we’re still trying to find ourselves a little bit. We can beat everybody in the league, but we can get beat too,” McKeown said, stressing the need for his players to establish consistency on offensive to complement their defensive prowess.
Even after her phenomenal performance, Pulliam said she feels like she hasn’t yet played to her full potential. Moments later, she was back on the court shooting free throws.