Prior to yesterday’s game in Iowa City, head coach Joe McKeown had won just one time at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in his thirteen seasons at Northwestern. Facing a Hawkeye team with four starters standing at 6-feet or taller, McKeown would need a gutsy performance from his team without starting center Courtney Shaw in order to reverse his woes against the Hawkeyes.
As McKeown said after the game, to “win on the road in our league, you [have] to have some toughness.” While NU’s ability to overcome adversity last night surely exhibited toughness, the ‘Cats struggled to exhibit that same trait in the paint.
Shaw’s absence was felt. Iowa outrebounded Northwestern 39-to-28 with 63% of the Hawkeyes’ points coming in the paint, a big difference compared to a Wildcat team that scored just 30% of its points in the paint. To make matters worse, Iowa center Monika Czinano hit a Big Ten record 15 consecutive shots to begin the game on her way to 34 points. Iowa’s best player, Caitlin Clark, scored two points in the first half before exploding for 21 second-half points.
Iowa had just one problem. Northwestern’s star backcourt, consisting of senior guard Lindsey Pulliam and junior point guard Veronica Burton, was even better than Czinano and Clark. Pulliam finished with 27 points, scoring 22 of them in the second half while Burton had 20 points of her own.
After hitting two jumpers late in the first quarter, Pulliam hit just one free throw in the next 18 minutes. The ‘Cats trailed 48-41 more than halfway into the third quarter when a personal foul from freshman Anna Morris triggered a media timeout.
NU entered the timeout desperately needing an offensive spark to catch the Hawkeyes. According to McKeown, his message to the players was not to “let your offense be your defense.” He continued by saying that there was still one-and-a-half quarters remaining, and NU was pressing too hard offensively in an effort to instantly erase Iowa’s lead.
As logical as McKeown’s message may have sounded, the ‘Cats struggled to heed his advice. Instead, the Hawkeyes scored a bucket out of the media timeout, expanding their lead to nine points. Fortunately for Northwestern, Lindsey Pulliam proceeded to deliver when Northwestern needed her most.
She erupted for 10 of Northwestern’s next 15 points in roughly two-and-a-half minutes of game action to reclaim a 55-54 NU lead. Then, in the fourth quarter, with the ‘Cats trailing by a point with under three minutes to go, she hit two free throws and a three-pointer in 80 seconds. Pulliam’s baskets catapulted Northwestern to a six-point lead, clinching Joe McKeown’s first road victory at Iowa since 2013 and handing Iowa just its second loss in its last 44 home games.
McKeown made it clear that his senior guard and her fellow upperclassmen fought to win the game at all costs. He said his group of experienced players, as cliché as it may sound, “hate(s) to lose more than they like to win.”
The Wildcats slate after Iowa does not get any easier. Northwestern’s next contest is a home matchup with Ohio State. The Buckeyes are second in the Big Ten with just one conference loss. Beyond OSU, Northwestern has a fairly advantageous schedule until facing the Buckeyes once more and Maryland to close out the year.
The ‘Cats play Ohio State once more in two weeks, but beyond that game, NU plays four bottom-feeders in the Big Ten. If NU can come away unscathed from those four games and split with Ohio State, the team should be in good shape for a coveted top-four seed in the Big Ten.