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Northwestern’s shaky performances continue as elite opponents loom

The Wildcats survived the two worst teams in the conference. Are they ready to face the best?

@nuwbball on Twitter

In what was the closest game it’s played against Illinois since any current assistant coach arrived in Evanston, Northwestern women’s basketball (13-5, 11-5 B1G) earned its 12th straight victory against the Fighting Illini and, in the process, likely kept themselves off the NCAA Tournament bubble.

But as the six-point final margin against the worst team in the conference indicates, the Wildcats are playing far from their best basketball. After an eight-game stretch in the middle of conference play in which NU won seven games, including four against presumptive Tournament teams (Ohio State would be a lock it if not for its postseason ban), Northwestern has struggled to a 2-2 record in its past four. The two much-needed victories came against hapless Wisconsin and Illinois.

The team has relied all year on its turnover margin to build an advantage against opponents that can score more consistently in half-court sets, and the problems the Wildcats will have to deal with against the two top-15 opponents that await them to close out the regular season remain the same. Northwestern is 11-0 when shooting 40% from the field or better, a mark it has achieved just once in its past five contests.

NU yet again struggled to put the ball in the basket in Champaign, but the issues stemmed from slightly different sources. Instead of the poor-shooting fourth quarters that have plagued it of late (though this one wasn’t much better), the main culprit was an 0-for-13 start from the field that allowed Illinois to stake itself to an 18-4 lead.

U of I hasn’t figured out McKeown’s patented Blizzard defense even once over Nancy Fahey’s four-year tenure, though, and they wouldn’t start now, then embarking on a 12-minute stretch without a field goal and allowing the Wildcats to gain a control over the game that they never fully gave away.

Though it certainly bookended the game poorly, there were bright spots for NU: Lindsey Pulliam’s field goal percentage continues to be down on the year, but she is seeing the ball go through the basket more and more every game, even takes her plenty of shots to do so. Lauryn Satterwhite came off the bench to hit three big triples despite coming into the game shooting just 20 percent from deep on the season.

Worryingly, Sydney Wood struggled mightily, shooting 1-for-5 from the field for five points with five turnovers, each the junior guard’s worst mark of the season in their respective categories. Meanwhile, Veronica Burton continues to find ways to score, finagling her way to 20 points with a 12-for-12 performance from the charity stripe. She also tied her season high in turnovers, with three.

Overall, Northwestern’s offensive problems, though they may shift slightly on a game-to-game basis, are twofold: a lack of inside presence with Courtney Shaw still injured allows defenses to send numbers at Wood and, in particular, Burton, when they try to create by slashing inside. Even more importantly, the Wildcats still cannot make threes, and the problem is getting worse: Burton, typically their only consistently reliable shooter from outside, is in the midst of a 5-for-27 slump.

The defense has largely stepped up of late to mitigate as many of these problems as possible, especially in the first half. That consistent presence even during a prolonged cold streak has been impressive. To peak at the right time, though, Northwestern will have to step up offensively.

Saturday’s tilt with Maryland will be a special test. The Terps boast Her Hoops Stats’ most efficient offense in the country and are just now re-integrating star freshman center Angel Reese after a foot injury sidelined her for over two months. They shoot an astonishing 42% from three as a team and own the transition game, with a positive turnover margin themselves.

When Reese isn’t in the game, though, Maryland lacks a defined interior presence, and its ball-handling can leave a bit to be desired: Diamond Miller and Ashley Owusu each turn it over nearly three times per game, and sharpshooter Katie Benzan, though sustaining perhaps one the best long-range shooting seasons in NCAA history (currently 54% from outside on 7.5 attempts per game) stands just 5-foot-6 and without an elite handle, making it easy for her to get lost against aggressive defenses like Northwestern.

It wouldn’t take much for the Wildcats to control the turnover battle, but to actually convert takeaways into wins against talented foes like Maryland, cohesive and post-heavy teams like Michigan (next week) and other well-coached, similar squads in the postseason, they must find away to unleash the full power of their offense.

The past two weeks have made clear that something has to give with Northwestern’s currently available personnel. If we don’t see new wrinkles to open up space in the interior or significantly increased levels of execution by the time next Saturday passes, it will be tough for Burton, Pulliam and co. to do more than just tread water.