EVANSTON, Illinois — Joe McKeown stood at the virtual podium after Northwestern’s 84-63 loss to No. 16 Michigan with a simple message: “Tonight was a wakeup call.”
In its first game against a ranked opponent this season, Northwestern (4-2, 2-2 B1G) looked nothing like the team capable of defending its Big Ten Championship.
The Wolverines utterly dominated NU in a 21-point victory, stretching the margin to as much as 35 in the second half.
“We just got outplayed,” said junior guard Lindsey Pulliam, who finished with 13 points on 5-of-14 shooting from the field.
The last time the ‘Cats played Michigan, the then seven-seed Wolverines took advantage of some sloppy play from NU to pull off the upset in the Big Ten tournament. That contest would be the last of that monumental season for Joe McKeown’s side, as their NCAA tournament dreams were so cruelly canceled by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sunday presented an opportunity for Northwestern to enact a little revenge on the Wolverines, rebound from the loss to Nebraska and assert itself as a surefire contender for the Big Ten regular-season title. But a lackluster defensive performance and a poor and inefficient shooting output sunk the ‘Cats early.
McKeown lamented, “If we’re going to play with the best teams in the Big Ten and the country, which we’re supposed to be one of them, we can’t play like that.”
Northwestern has now lost two consecutive games, something it did not do last season, and now finds itself reeling as it enters into the bulk of conference play.
The Michigan offense centered itself around Naz Hillmon, the two-time All-Big Ten first-teamer who dropped 27 and 20 points respectively on last season’s Northwestern defense with the interior presence of Abbie Wolf.
“You’re not going to stop her,” said McKeown.
Courtney Shaw, Northwestern’s most experience and useful post defender, found herself in foul trouble and with a potential injury early, which did not help matters, as Hillmon dominated the Wildcats’ undersized lineup on both ends of the floor. She ended the night with 26 points and 12 rebounds.
Leigha Brown’s sharpshooting from beyond the arc was crucial to the blowout as well. The transfer from Nebraska scored 22 points, including 4-of-5 from three-point land. The Wolverines overall shot 62% on threes, hitting their first six to build a 28-13 first-quarter lead. Northwestern simply could not keep up.
McKeown cited the phrase, “Don’t let offense be your defense.” Northwestern shot 16% on threes and yielded 55 points in the first half, the most given up so far this season.
“You can’t shoot 3-for-19 from the three-point line,” said McKeown. “We’re a team with our goal to be to make five or six threes a game and shoot 40% from the three-point line.”
NU’s inability to find easy shots in the paint did not mitigate the miserable day from beyond the arc. A majority of its shots were neither three-pointers nor layups. Michigan’s size forced them to settle for mid-range jumpers.
What appears to cause the most concern is that the ‘Cats lacked the energy, spirit and tenacity that propelled them over talented opponents last season. Michigan’s shooting and size put them in an uncomfortable position early, and NU failed to recapture any momentum. For the second straight game, Northwestern won the turnover battle yet were thoroughly outrebounded. McKeown said that the momentum-shifting turnovers and stops typical of the Blizzard defense were lacking, as well as any effectiveness in the transition game.
As deflating as Michigan’s unreal shooting performance proved to be, Northwestern missed the usual contributions from the likes of Veronica Burton, Jordan Hamilton and Pulliam to set the tone early and keep it in the game. Burton was a non-factor early on and ended the night with only seven points. Hamilton shot 3-of-15 from the field.
“All three of them have the green light,” said McKeown. “You like them shooting the ball.”
The defending Big Ten champions find themselves in an unfamiliar position relative to last season. In the coming week, they play middle-of-the-pack squads Wisconsin and Iowa, an opportunity to re-establish themselves in the title race. The question remains as to where they go from this blowout loss, perhaps an inflection point in this ever-chaotic season.
“We’re still finding ourselves,” said McKeown. “We’re a different team from last year. We have a lot of different people playing different positions or new players.”
Without a full preseason and nonconference schedule, Northwestern has not had the opportunity to grow into a cohesive unit just yet. Its lack of depth was not as noticeable as it was against Nebraska, when the bench did not contribute a single point, but the dearth of major contributions from its role players thus far is another facet that must develop in tandem with improvements on both sides of the floor.
“It’s going to take us a little time to click on all cylinders,” added McKeown.
While the team aims to move forward and put the loss behind them, this blowout is something the ‘Cats might look back upon, as they eagerly seek revenge as the season continues.
“I don’t think we completely flush it,” added Pulliam. “You remember this because we play them again. We’re going to remember this, remember what this felt like, and at the end of the season, we’re going to do what we need to do when we play them again.”