INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana — Back at Bankers Life Fieldhouse for the first time in one year, Northwestern found itself playing a familiar foe. Two weeks ago, the sluggish ‘Cats squeaked by Illinois in a 67-61 win that didn’t bolster much confidence heading into the postseason. The ‘Cats fell behind 18-4 early in Champaign before recovering but struggling to fully quash the Illini.
Wednesday’s second round Big Ten Tournament matchup was a different story. Both teams struggled to score early in the first quarter, but Northwestern asserted its defense and used one of its most impressive quarters in recent memory to blow past Illinois 67-42, the program’s largest margin of victory in a Big Ten Tournament game by 15 points.
The victory was full of important milestones for Joe McKeown’s squad. The ‘Cats won their first Big Ten Tournament game in three years, while Lindsey Pulliam scored 21 points to passed Amy Jaeschke for third on the program’s all-time scoring list with 1,977.
“Coming into Northwestern, I knew I wanted to leave as one of the greatest to come through the program,” said Pulliam. “Just to know that I’m doing things that are really special to me, I got a lot more work to do.”
Amid an inconsistent season, the second-team All-Big Ten honoree crossed the 20-point threshold for only the first time since mid-February. Shooting 10-of-19, she led all scorers on the court and fell a mere rebound short of a double-double.
Pulliam’s shooting struggles have echoed across the team this season. The ‘Cats have not found that gear which propelled them to a Big Ten regular season title last year. They’ve struggled against some of the better teams in the Big Ten, especially their second-half offenses in losses to Indiana, Rutgers, Nebraska and Maryland. Wednesday was only the third game this season in which the ‘Cats shot under 40 percent and won. Against inferior opponents, NU has relied on streaky shooting to compliment their turnover-inducing defense, the one constant in a season marked by uncertainty.
NU started the afternoon shooting 1-of-9 as its volume shooter missed her first four shots. Courtney Shaw, in just her second game back from injury, provided a spark off the bench in a 2-2 game nearly halfway through the quarter. She scored on her first touch to give the ‘Cats a lead they would never relinquish before drawing a charge on the other end of the court. Her minutes have been limited since returning from injury two games ago, but her size and mobility will be necessary if they want a shot at neutralizing Michigan’s Naz Hillmon, the Big Ten Player of the Year.
Northwestern proceeded to make five of its next seven field goal attempts to close out the quarter on an 8-0 run to take an 18-6 lead.
The Wildcats dominated the second quarter in a span emblematic of how lethal they can be when everything clicks. Illinois scored a mere two points while shooting 0-for-11, and turned the ball over 15 times in those ten minutes. Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Veronica Burton had three steals in the period. The Illini’s eight first-half points set a Big Ten Tournament record for fewest points in a single half.
That defensive prowess gave them life on the other end of the court. They played with an elevated level of swagger and confidence. Pulliam dished a phenomenal no-look pass to Paige Mott, who finished while drawing a foul, much to her teammates’ delight. When the Illini switched to a zone defense, Burton, who finished with 15 points, looked into her defender’s eyes, stepped back, and drilled a three-pointer from Zionsville.
Even as Illinois unleashed its press and began to chip away in the third quarter, the ‘Cats cruised. Pulliam got hot, hitting five of her eight attempts in the third quarter.
This win could prove to be a crucial inflection point for Northwestern. It won for the first time with Courtney Shaw back in the lineup, and a team that has looked weary at times instead looked energized. According to McKeown, the ‘Cats need to achieve consistency, rather than relying on streaking shooting and turnovers, putting together a complete game to give them the opportunity to win against a top opponent.
No. 13 Michigan, a team which has already defeated Northwestern twice, will be a measuring stick for NU if it is to improve its NCAA Tournament seeding and see just how far it might be able to run this month.
“I think we’re going come into that game with a chip on our shoulder and be ready to play, but there’s definitely a little extra excitement,” Pulliam said.
Defeating a team three times in one season is a challenge. Northwestern learned that last year when it fell 67-59 to the same Wolverines in the Big Ten Tournament Quarterfinals. The Wildcats will need Pulliam, Burton, Shaw and company to come up big every time out. It only gets tougher from here.