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Women’s basketball: Northwestern can’t afford to drop these next two games

This week could have major postseason implications.

This time last year, No. 11 Northwestern was right in the middle of what was a nine-game winning streak, only to be stopped by a Big Ten tournament loss to upstart Michigan — and then a pandemic. The question at this point was how high a seed it might earn — hosting the early rounds was basically a look.

Fast forward 12 months, and the ‘Cats, now ranked 24th, are holding on to their fifth place spot in the conference behind four other nationally ranked teams, at least two of which they will face (given postponements are kept to a minimum) in the upcoming weeks.

In order for Joe McKeown’s squad to garner a top-four seed and double-bye in the conference tournament, and solidify its standing for the NCAA Tournament, the Wildcats need wins in their next two matchups versus unranked Nebraska and Wisconsin teams at home before heading into a difficult stretch to finish the regular season.

The tricky Huskers handed Northwestern its first loss of the year on New Year’s Eve, one of NU’s two losses to unranked teams. In a game the Wildcats shouldn’t have lost but were lucky to be in, Nebraska’s Sam Haiby propelled the Huskers to a 65-63 victory in Lincoln. The ‘Cats followed up that early-season disappointment with a blowout loss to Michigan only a few days later. NU shortly thereafter butchered Wisconsin 80-55 to start a stretch during which they won seven of their next eight games.

Given the previous Nebraska matchup was decided at the buzzer and the Badgers pose little threat, there is no excuse for the Wildcats to lose either game. The last-minute postponement in Columbus this past Sunday saved NU another 40 minutes of wear and tear, even if it didn’t prevent a weekend of travel and an emotional roller coaster.

Veronica Burton will have a chance to revitalize her shot after shooting a combined 3-for-16 (2-for-10 3PT) in the Wildcats’ last two matchups versus Rutgers and Michigan State. The same goes for Lindsay Pulliam, who in addition to Burton dropped single digits in the Rutgers loss, and is just 16 for her last 50 attempts. The Wildcats’ star tandem carries an undue load every night, and considering NU notched two quality one wins, they’ll take that. But it can’t be expected every night, especially deep into February and March.

The development of first-years Anna Morris and Paige Mott will be paramount this week as it appears the ‘Cats will remain without starting forward Courtney Shaw due to injury. They’ve been a true work in progress with encouraging flashes. Mott was one of three Wildcats to score in double digits in their loss to Rutgers, and while Morris has not had the same relative success, she provided replacement-level minutes in key wins against Iowa and Ohio State. The next two games will provide a good chance for both her and Mott to deepen their presence in the Wildcat rotation.

NU has suffered only one losing streak this season, and it was as short as streaks come. Two home wins this week is necessary. The victories wouldn’t vault them into a new category, but losses would certainly drop them, and they need to rack up all the wins before facing two of their toughest challenges against No. 9 Maryland and No. 11 Michigan to round out the regular season. Add in a rescheduled game against No. 12 Ohio State and that’s three top-15 matchups leading into the postseason.

Win the winnable games, and then grab an upset to bolster the seeding. Every game is important to Northwestern at this point.