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Northwestern has execution problems to solve with the postseason on the horizon

The Wildcats earned a crucial win against Wisconsin but still have a lot work to do before March.

EVANSTON, Illinois — Northwestern took care of business on Saturday afternoon to defeat Wisconsin 67-54, but its performance was far from perfect. The Wildcats entered the matchup on their second two-game losing streak of the season and came away with a much-needed yet uninspiring win, raising questions about the team’s potential in the fast-approaching postseason.

Since the Wildcats beat Ohio State, they haven’t looked or played like the championship-caliber team they can be. This squad is known for dominant and hard-fought victories in arguably the best conference in women’s college basketball, but with the exception of the win over the Buckeyes and the Iowa series, it hasn’t shown that and seems burnt out.

Sometimes, a loss is more impactful than a lackluster win. After back-to-back losses to Rutgers and Nebraska, it seemed Northwestern got the wake-up call it needed. Yet Saturday’s matchup saw similar struggles persist against a team that ranks 197th in the nation, according to Her Hoop Stats.

Per usual, the Wildcat defense was lockdown, especially early on, holding Wisconsin to just 20 points in the first half and forcing 26 turnovers throughout the game. Overall, Northwestern’s offense improved from the Nebraska game, shooting at a respectable 41% clip. However, their three-point shooting struggles continued, as NU made just two threes and shot 15% from behind the arc. According to Her Hoops Stats, the Wildcats are in the 15th percentile in three-point shooting nationally.

Lindsey Pulliam, Sydney Wood and Veronica Burton accounted for the bulk of the points, combining for 41 of the team’s 67, but did so in an inefficient manner. Pulliam scored just 14 points on 16 shots while Burton shot just 1-for-8 from the field, scoring 10 of her points from the charity stripe.

The rebounding struggles persisted as well for the undersized lineup, especially against Wisconsin’s Imani Lewis, who scored 11 points and hauled in eight boards. The Badgers outrebounded NU 33-to-30, a slight advantage but one that would be much more noticeable against teams with powerhouse post players. The Wildcats are in the 29th percentile in defensive rebounds this season; when facing some of the conference’s best like Naz Hillmon and Dorka Juhasz, that will be a problem.

Lastly, the second half proved dangerous for the Wildcats again, who have struggled in the final 20 minutes all season. Northwestern was outscored 34-30 in the final two quarters, relying on their halftime lead to secure the win. Despite holding a 17-point lead at the half, the Badgers cut the lead to as few as seven in the third quarter as the ‘Cats fell flat, shooting just 19% in that frame.

“I think we realize we’re not going to win big games if we don’t come out in the third quarter strong,” Burton said. “We go into the half with the lead and then we come out flat. That’s something that’s not going to work. I think every halftime we have to really just define what we’re going to do and put it into action early. I think we can’t really get complacent with our leads, and we’ve got to come out strong with the same intensity that we start the game with.”

A win is a win, but beating a conference bottom feeder by 13 leaves similar concerns on the table with the postseason on the horizon. Northwestern has just two remaining regular-season games against Illinois and No. 7 Maryland this week before making trips to Indianapolis and San Antonio for the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.

After the loss to Nebraska, the Wildcats will likely drop out of the AP Top 25 rankings on Monday for the first time in 22 weeks, trending in the wrong direction at the wrong time. But NU has a couple of weeks to turn things around and gain the momentum it needs.

“Last year, we were primed to make a run in the NCAA tournament,” head coach Joe McKeown said. “You just want to get to that point. You want to want to have some momentum. You cut down your practice times, more about execution and focus on the little things. So that’s really where we want to go as a team.”

The Big Ten is incredibly competitive this season — as it is most seasons — so any conference win is important. Northwestern has the talent and ability to compete in the Big Ten and make a run into April in the national spotlight. However, in order to get there, the ‘Cats must put these past few weeks behind them and solve their execution problems. If they can, then they could achieve their NCAA tournament dreams that they were robbed of a year ago.

“You’re in a monster league, maybe the best league in the country,” McKeown said. “Even last year we were 16-2, really good teams are going to get beaten this league. You’ve got to bounce back. I think that’s what they talked about. Our players really understand that, didn’t dwell on the Nebraska game or the Rutgers game, just move forward. I think that’s the biggest thing we can do is just be about us and move forward.”