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Drive to win and controlled play lift Northwestern past Michigan and into tournament semifinals

Burton and Pulliam >>

INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana — In every game Northwestern women’s basketball played this season, it felt like it left something on the table. Whether it was missed free throws, poor overall shooting or shaky second-half performances, even many of its wins felt incomplete.

However, in Thursday’s Big Ten Tournament Quarterfinal against No. 13 Michigan, the tournament’s fourth seed, the underdog Wildcats cleaned up and engineered their best performance of the season when it mattered most.

The energy in Bankers Life Fieldhouse was just different. Maybe it was the scattered fans or the atmosphere of playing in an NBA arena. Whatever it was, the change in mentality could be seen through the Wildcats’ play and drive to win.

“We came out today like, especially out of halftime, and you could just see it in their eyes,” said head coach Joe McKeown. “They just were like, ‘We’re ready, coach. Let’s just go play.’”

Northwestern ruthlessly attacked the Michigan defense and never let up until the clock hit zero. Veronica Burton led the charge with 25 points, 13 rebounds and six assists, and Lindsey Pulliam added a crucial 18 points on. Northwestern knew it wasn’t a matchup that it’d win inside against Big Ten Player of the Year Naz Hillmon, so it turned to the fast break to outscore Michigan 13-0 in transition.

Even with Hillmon’s standout 26-point, 12-rebound performance, Northwestern held her to just 50% shooting (she averages 65% from the field) and limited her supporting cast to 9-of-46 from the field and one made three-pointer on 15 tries. Only five Michigan players scored, and Hillmon and Leigha Brown alone accounted for 73% of their Wolverines’ points.

What made NU’s defensive performance even more impressive was that it also faced foul trouble for most of the game. Courtney Shaw committed two in the first quarter that sidelined her for the remainder of the half, and her rotating replacements, Paige Mott and Anna Morris, each had three fouls by halftime.

McKeown managed the substitutions well down the stretch, saving the right players for when it mattered most, and the reserves stepped up big. Lauryn Satterwhite, Jasmine McWilliams and Morris all contributed big minutes late in the first half and in the third quarter. Despite Shaw and Mott only playing 18 and 14 minutes, respectively, Michigan grabbed only two more rebounds than Northwestern.

The two teams battled to a halftime tie, but it felt like Northwestern outplayed Michigan in the opening 20 minutes. It just took the halftime break for the ‘Cats to finally put their foot on the gas, as they outscored the Wolverines 35-19 after that.

“We kind of brought a different mentality and a different energy,” said Burton. “We wanted it a bit more than them, and I think that was evident from the tip. We were motivated and we were just ready to play. Whoever was on that on the receiving end, I think it was going to go our way.”

It may not have mattered who was on the receiving end, but it happened to be a team that Northwestern desperately wanted and needed to beat. After falling to Michigan twice earlier this season and getting knocked out of last year’s Big Ten Tournament by Kim Barnes Arico’s squad, Northwestern desired revenge and exacted it.

The Wildcats looked comfortable. Throughout the season, even in many of their close wins over lesser opponents, Northwestern hardly had control over the game’s pace or momentum. But in Thursday’s matchup, they set the pace from the get-go and played their own game rather than someone else’s. They never trailed by more than two and led the entire second half.

Earning a statement win in March against the nation’s thirteenth-ranked team is exactly what the Wildcats needed ahead of the NCAA Tournament. On Friday, they will have the chance to get another against the best team in the Big Ten, No. 7 Maryland. Downing the regular season champions would set them up one victory away from capturing the conference title for the first time ever.

Northwestern may still be two wins from the tournament title, but after so many games where it felt like something was missing, at Bankers Life, the Wildcats found it.