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Northwestern can be among the nation’s best but must first move past its offensive struggles

The Wildcats competed with the No. 8 team in the country but were haunted by familiar. problems.

EVANSTON, Illinois — They didn’t get the job done, but the Wildcats proved themselves.

Northwestern women’s basketball fell 62-50 to No. 8 Maryland on Sunday afternoon in a matchup that was much closer than the final score read. After weeks of uninspired play that earned shaky them wins against mediocre opponents, the Wildcats came to play on Sunday against the Big Ten’s best squad.

Their performance featured glimpses of their 2019-2020 Big Ten Championship-winning campaign. They refused to go down without a fight, but their show-stopping defensive performance was undermined yet again by a hapless offense.

Joe McKeown couldn’t have asked for more from his Blizzard defense, which held the best scoring offense in the nation to just 62 points — 31 points below their season average. The same Maryland team scored 68 points in the first half alone against Iowa last week. Northwestern’s defense provided its toughest test yet.

The ‘Cats found success by limiting the Terps’ two most efficient scorers. They held star Ashley Owusu to just 10 points and three made field goals, well below her average of 19 points a game. Katie Benzan, the best three-point shooter in the nation at 53%, tallied only five points on 1-for-4 shooting from deep. Brenda Frese’s bunch shot just 15% from behind the arc against the Wildcats, compared to its average of 42%.

Defense wasn’t Northwestern’s problem. NU scored just 50 points and took 63 shots to get there. The Wildcats shot just 30% from the field, 15% from three and 59% from the free throw line. They didn’t score more than 15 points in a single quarter, and when facing the best offense in the country, that won’t cut it.

“Maryland is pretty good defensively,” said NU head coach Joe McKeown. “They throw a lot of size at you. They throw a lot of different defensive pressure. They’re long, they’re athletic, and they’re big. They present different challenges than most teams that you’re gonna play against.”

There was certainly a lid on the rim for Northwestern, which missed 15 layups in the matchup, but as McKeown said, Maryland’s defense forced it to take poor shots and rush decision making. The Terps ran both a full-court press and a half-court trap, which limited the Wildcats’ ability to get open shots and control the game’s pace. Against the best teams in the conference, Northwestern has to be able to work through those challenges and create smarter shots. It has yet to figure that out.

Additionally, well-coached teams like Maryland know how to neutralize the opponent’s best players. For over a month, Veronica Burton and Lindsey Pulliam haven’t been able to score 20+ points a game like their team needs them to, because opposing defenses have them figured out. That’s where other players need to step up and haven’t been able to, especially on this injury-riddled roster. Burton, Pulliam and Sydney Wood accounted for 76% of the team’s total points. The rest of their teammates scoring just 12 total points.

“When we play the better teams in our league, and as we move into the tournament, we can’t only depend on two or three people to score all our points,” said freshman forward Anna Morris. “Obviously, we play great defense. I think it’s just growing our offensive threat and like having more people who can score the ball. I’ve tried to be more of a presence on offense. At the beginning of the season, I wasn’t playing a ton, and now I’ve realized it can’t just be Veronica [Burton] and Lindsey [Pulliam] scoring all our points.”

Northwestern reminded the nation that it can compete with top teams, even after falling out of the AP Top 25 rankings for the first time all season. However, its offensive challenges have proven consistent and persistent and are something NU must address before the postseason begins next week.

The Wildcats have one final regular-season test against No. 12 Michigan — an opportunity to redeem themselves from a blowout loss they suffered to the Wolverines two months ago. From then on out, it’s one-and-done, and the Wildcats cannot afford to make the same mistakes on the game’s biggest stage.