Just about 15 minutes before tip-off, Northwestern announced that starting center Courtney Shaw wouldn’t play against No. 16 Indiana, as she suffered a lower-body injury. Immediately, alarm bells rung. In what was going to be one of the Wildcats’ toughest matchups of the season, true freshmen Paige Mott and Anna Morris were going to have to carry the load down low.
Indiana knew this. They were already a team with valuable size, as three key players in MacKenzie Holmes, Aleksa Gulbe and Grace Berger stand in at 6-foot-3, 6-foot-3 and 6-foot, respectively. They were bound to try to exploit the less-experienced Mott and Morris, and exploit they did. The Hoosiers outrebounded the ‘Cats 40-to-33 and scored 38 of their 74 points in the paint, with 26 of 33 first-half points coming down low as well.
To be clear, Mott and Morris did not play a bad game, nor do they lack height. They stand at 6-foot-1 and 6-foot-3, and they played well overall. Mott recorded just two points but managed to add seven rebounds and two blocks in her 23 minutes of play. She was the only player on the team with a positive plus-minus. Morris, meanwhile, had just two points in 14 minutes of action. Overall, they held their own in the situation they were put into, but Shaw’s athleticism and defensive ability is hard to replace.
“[Paige and Anna] were playing against two really good players who play deep on the blocks, and Indiana was able to get them the ball as times,” head coach Joe McKeown said. “[Courtney’s] our number one post defender, so not having her today was a challenge, but it’s part of the game. She’s been an integral part of our success so far, so we missed her today.”
Shaw isn’t necessarily a player who stuffs the stat sheet or puts up eye-popping numbers. She’s averaging 7.6 points per game and 7.1 rebounds per game, 3.5 of which come on the offensive end, but her biggest impact comes on the defensive side of the ball, where she averages 1.3 steals and 0.6 blocks per game and is consistently reliable in taking charges. Additionally, she hardly makes mistakes and is key to defensive rotations, all of which was missing yesterday.
“I think fouls kind of played a role, we had to be more careful, I know Paige had four fouls,” guard Veronica Burton said. “They were getting it inside more than we wanted to have happen, and we weren’t forcing as many turnovers as we needed.”
When it came to minutes, Shaw’s injury created shockwaves as well. Shaw typically averages 26.5 minutes per game, but that was missing yesterday. Instead, we saw Mott and Morris combine for 37 minutes and Lindsay Pulliam and Sydney Wood play all 40 minutes of the game, while Jordan Hamilton played 37. Pulliam, Wood and Hamilton came into the game averaging 35.1, 32.8 and 31.1 minutes per game, respectively.
It’s also key to note that the Wildcats sometimes opted to go to a five-guard lineup with Shaw out, leaving Mott and Morris off the floor and giving Indiana even more room to operate in the paint.
“When you get into a game like that, you try to get people in and out as you have the lead,” McKeown said on player minutes. “But you need players who can make plays for you on the floor when the other team is making a run. It was just a hard-fought, physical Big Ten game.”
As the ‘Cats head down the stretch and continue on with conference play, they’ll face some tough, and tall, opponents. They’ll travel to Iowa City on Thursday to face the 9-3 Hawkeyes, and four of their top five scorers are at least 6-feet tall. After that, the Wildcats have a home date with No. 17 Ohio State, who have two players rostered above 6-foot-4 and multiple others above the 6-foot mark.
It’s unclear when Shaw may return — she was seen in a boot prior to yesterday’s game — but the Wildcats need her desperately for the upcoming stretch. Indiana had their way down low throughout the game, which allowed them to get more open looks on the perimeter as time went on. If the ‘Cats are forced to go without Shaw for an extended period of time, the games ahead could make for a very difficult time.