EVANSTON, Illinois — No. 24 Northwestern forces an average of 21.1 turnovers per game, which ranks 11th in the nation, and scores an average of 24 points off of them. Northwestern’s average turnover margin of +9.1 ranks second nationally.
The Wildcats destroyed Nebraska 28-4 in the turnover margin on Wednesday night and scored 26 points from said takeaways. Yet the Huskers (10-9, 8-7 Big Ten) completed the season sweep of NU (11-5, 9-5) with a strong second half in a 71-64 victory.
Since 2015, teams in the Her Hoop Stats database were previously 70-0 when they record 20 steals and their opponents get five or fewer. Only nine of those 70 games were decided by 13 points or fewer.
For the majority of the first half, it looked like everything would proceed as planned. NU led 19-9 after one quarter after forcing 11 turnovers, nine of them steals. Nebraska took just nine shots, and NU built a 14-point lead early in the second. The Huskers began to settle down as the first half wore on, but the Wildcats still led 33-24 at the break despite zero points from leading scorer Veronica Burton.
But as has been the case too often lately and in most of its losses this season, Northwestern failed to put together a viable second half and make the necessary adjustments on offense. The Wildcats scored 31 points after halftime — as many as Nebraska scored in the fourth quarter alone.
NU has led at halftime in four of its five losses. In those games, the Wildcats have scored an average of 27.8 points in the second half. Against UNL, whose game plan of clogging the defensive paint with tall forwards Kate Cain and Isabelle Bourne proved effective, Northwestern shot just 26% in the second half and made three fewer baskets than Nebraska despite taking 16 more attempts.
“We had Nebraska right where we wanted them at halftime,” said head coach Joe McKeown. “We felt good about our defense. We had let downs in the second half defensively, and it really hurt us. And we just struggled shooting the ball.”
Northwestern missed a lot of shots around the basket, in part because of the size of Cain and Bourne, who made life miserable for Burton, Sydney Wood, Anna Morris and Paige Mott. The Huskers blocked six shots, and NU missed its rare chances to make easy layups in transition.
The Wildcats averaged just 0.72 points per possession and 0.75 points per shot attempt, well below their respective season averages of 0.84 and 0.97. That’s what happens when they’re forced to settle for jumpers and shoot just 2-of-12 from three in the second half.
McKeown mused that they should consider changing the Welsh-Ryan Arena rims, but the fact is his team simply looked lost on offense, as was the case against Nebraska the first time, against Indiana and last week against Rutgers. They took 78 shots to UNL’s 51 and lost by seven.
“We got really good looks in the third quarter,” he said. “Just we missed layups, we missed a wide-open look in transition. When you have those, those couple minutes when we’re struggling, you got to do the little things, you got to get to the foul line. Maybe get a turnover layup, things that we’ve been doing all year, at which we’ve been pretty good.”
Northwestern’s offense needs contributions from Wood and Jordan Hamilton but still revolves around Burton and Lindsey Pulliam. Burton finished with 10 points but on just 2-of-12 shooting and didn’t score until halfway through the fourth quarter, while her backcourt partner scored 22 points on 9-of-24 shooting.
Pulliam and McKeown both promoted confidence despite falling in a game that in many respects had all the makings of a Wildcat win, saying they know they’re a great team that will figure its issues out before the postseason.
While the offensive struggles aren’t new, they are surfacing at a point in the season in which there isn’t much time to implement an overhaul. But it’s becoming clear that against quality teams, the halftime adjustments either aren’t being made or are ineffective. Pulliam and Burton can only be relied upon to be otherworldly so often.
“We say all the time ‘don’t let your offense be your defense,’” said McKeown. “And the breakdowns we had on the glass we can’t afford. We don’t have the size, the physicality of some of the teams in the Big Ten.”
NU’s offense does affect its defense, though, as made baskets allow its Blizzard defense to set up, dictate the opposing offense and force it into turning the ball over.
“We have a lot of basketball left to play,” said Pulliam. “This is just somewhere where we get to learn before we get into postseason, because we’re a great team. We have big things to come for the rest of the year.”
Northwestern may have high aspirations this March, but if its losses have taught us anything, it’s that it will have to adjust its offense when necessary, otherwise its second halves will prevent it from going far.