EVANSTON, Illinois — Northwestern started Monday ranked in the AP Top 25 for the 20th straight week, but it had been 382 days since the Wildcats last beat a ranked team.
Last January, the ‘Cats took down No. 15 Indiana in an overtime thriller, a win that helped vault them into the Big Ten title race and the national picture. NU earned another big win and ended that drought Monday night as the No. 22 Wildcats (10-3, 7-3 Big Ten) downed No. 11 Ohio State (10-2, 5-1) 69-57.
Before Monday night, NU had handled the weaker conference teams and stumbled against upper tier opponents. The Wildcats got blown out by No. 13 Michigan and faded down the stretch against No. 16 Indiana. They’ve won their other six contests in the new year by an average of 15 points per game.
Veronica Burton led the way for Northwestern with a near-triple double, putting up a team-high in points, rebounds and assists with 20, 15 and nine, respectively. Last season’s Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year has upped her scoring about six points per game from last year and her has field goal percentage has risen over 10 percentage points to nearly 50%.
“Being aggressive consistently throughout the game is a major aspect of my game that I’ve tried to increase this year,” said Burton. “I’ve been keeping that mindset even if my outside shot is not falling.”
Behind Burton’s strong play, Northwestern, playing again without junior forward Courtney Shaw (week-to-week with an injury), did more than enough to secure a victory against a talented opponent in a game headlined by runs and droughts. OSU’s full court press hurt the ‘Cats in the second quarter, leading to a string of turnovers that cut NU’s 17-point lead down to two at one point. NU turned it over an uncharacteristic 10 times in the opening 20 minutes, from which the Buckeyes scored 12 points, nearly half of their first-half total.
But Joe McKeown’s short-handed group showed its resilience. After faltering in the fourth quarter versus No. 15 Indiana a week ago, a chorus of Wildcats hit key shots throughout the second half to preserve their lead. Sydney Wood hit a couple of big buckets, while Jordan Hamilton scored nine points after halftime on four attempts. True first-year Anna Morris logged a season-high in minutes and points, scoring nine points on 4-of-6 shooting as she and Paige Mott combined to fill in for Shaw.
“When Ohio State made runs, I thought we did a great job of coming back and scoring,” McKeown said.
Morris used her height to record three blocks against a bigger OSU team. Her efforts to box out in the paint helped Northwestern out-rebound Ohio State by eight, and her critical and-one layup capped a 5-0 Wildcat run that gave them an insurmountable eight-point lead with 3:18 left.
“The biggest thing for me over the past three games has been confidence,” said Morris. “Having my teammates there for me and not getting upset if I turn the ball over or miss a step on defense has been helpful.”
Northwestern’s stellar defense all game long certainly helped as well. The Blizzard was integral in holding Ohio State to just 57 points, well below the Buckeyes’ season average of nearly 85 points per game. McKeown called it his squad’s best defensive effort of the year, and it came in a game in which NU shot just 1-of-12 from three. They got it done by moving the ball, attacking the cup and drawing fouls. NU assisted on 18 of its 25 baskets and shot 26 free throws.
“I thought we were really patient and played great defense and made a couple of big shots,” said McKeown. “At times we tried to play a little too fast, but I thought that the fourth quarter we played with a lot of poise.”
The victory keeps the Wildcats in the race for the Big Ten title as they enter the second half of the season. NU faces tough tests in Michigan State and Rutgers before facing the Buckeyes again in less than two weeks. If Northwestern can find ways to win over the next couple of weeks, it could give conference championship implications to its matchups with Michigan and Maryland to close out the regular season.