EVANSTON, Illinois — For the third time in the last five games, Northwestern was abandoned by its offense in the second half. Despite trading blows with a quality Rutgers (7-4, 3-3 Big Ten) team for over three quarters, No. 21 NU (11-4, 9-4) melted in the fourth quarter as it simply couldn’t string together buckets, falling 70-54.
Lindsey Pulliam and Veronica Burton, NU’s unquestioned top two offensive weapons, combined for just 15 points on 4-of-23 shooting. That’s not going to cut it, especially against a defense that allows just under 57 points per game and has the 17th-best rating in the country, per HerHoop Stats.
The mini-miracle was that the Wildcats went into the half tied at 28 despite their backcourt duo totaling just three points in the opening 20 minutes. The Thursday matinee at Welsh-Ryan Arena had all the makings of a Big Ten rock fight until midway through the fourth. The Scarlet Knights never gave up the lead after 4:11 in the third quarter, but their advantage never got larger than seven, and a Paige Mott layup brought NU within two with under six minutes left.
Then the wheels fell off. Northwestern’s unsustainable offense finally caught up to it. Rutgers’ defense hounded Burton all game, employing full court and three quarter-court presses often after halftime, and when the ‘Cats got into the half court, they weren’t decisive. Time and again, NU passed the ball around the perimeter against the aggressive Scarlet Knights before getting pressed up against the shot clock.
NU head coach Joe McKeown said it was a couple plays that made the difference, especially between two strong defensive teams. After RU’s Tekia Mack hit a triple to put her team up by five, there was no recovering for the ‘Cats. Rutgers closed the game on a 17-3 run as NU hit only one of its final 14 attempts, and none in the final 4:22.
Northwestern shot just 32% from the field in the second half and 20% from deep. The first-year Mott, who combined with fellow first-year Anna Morris to once again fill in for injured forward Courtney Shaw, was the most efficient Wildcat, scoring eight points on 3-of-4 shooting after halftime.
The Wildcats’ offense completely stagnated down the stretch. It scored just 20 total points in the paint and recorded just 11 assists, well below its season average of 16 per game. NU turned the ball over more times (5) in the second half than it assisted baskets (4).
“One thing that hurt us tonight was we were not able to penetrate like we normally do, and they took away some of our driving lanes,” said McKeown. “It made a big difference. We played a little more east-west. Then we wanted to play downhill and they closed that up on us a little bit.”
Northwestern’s entire game plan hinges on its ability to generate turnovers, especially live-ball turnovers. Without forcing turnovers, NU is stuck playing larger teams in the half court.
It allows a respectable 0.76 points per play, which ranks in the 70th percentile; but the Blizzard has been giving up a more concerning 1.02 points per scoring attempt, which ranks in the bottom quarter of the country. The ‘Cats rank 12th in the nation in forcing 21 turnovers per game and score 24 points off them. Rutgers turned the ball over only three times in the second half, and NU converted those into only two points.
“Their length was a big factor,” said junior forward Sydney Wood. “They’re definitely one of the longest and most aggressive defenses in the league. A lot of it came down to how we executed down the stretch as well. Moving forward, we’ve got to keep working on how we execute our plays and how we execute according to what the defense does. They were switching a lot, definitely making reads based off of switches.”
The Wildcats have shown that they can be worn down in the second half. In three of their four losses, they’ve scored 26 points or fewer after halftime. Even in their 63-60 win against Michigan State on Sunday, they held a 21-point lead late in the first half before blowing it and trailing deep in the fourth quarter. Pulliam and Jordan Hamilton exiting with injuries compounded the struggles, but if it weren’t for a heroic effort from Burton, NU would be on a two-game slide.
Of course, without Shaw, NU’s best rebounder, the Wildcats’ youngsters are being forced to grow up on the spot, a tough task for anyone, especially when they’re the only players who can supply the necessary length inside. The final stats don’t show it, but until garbage time, Rutgers dominated the boards, at one point out-rebounding NU on the offensive glass by 10. McKeown joked that they’re not going to grow until next September.
NU should receive a boost when Shaw returns, but there’s no sign she’s coming back immediately. And even when she’s back in the lineup, that doesn’t change the fact that the ‘Cats need to be more nimble in the second half. Whether it’s fatigue from having a short bench or simply so much being put on the shoulders of Pulliam and Burton, Northwestern needs to re-gain its closing touch.