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Northwestern’s formula for success on display in Big Ten Tournament

Wednesday and Thursday showed the ‘Cats their path to a March run, while Friday reminded them what they aren’t.

Maryland v Northwestern - Big Ten Women’s Basketball Tournament - Semifinals Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana — Northwestern got what its head coach Joe McKeown called “a kick in the teeth” from No. 7 Maryland in Friday’s 85-52 loss in the Big Ten Tournament semifinal.

The fifth-seeded Wildcats, coming off an impressive 65-49 upset of fourth-seed and nationally ranked Michigan in the quarterfinals, looked overmatched from the outset. They quickly fell down 7-0 and could never get on level ground with the top-seeded Terrapins.

Senior guard Jordan Hamilton’s second three-pointer of the game brought the ‘Cats to within five early in the second quarter, but the attempt at playing catchup stopped there. NU did not score for 5:16 as Maryland couldn’t miss from the field and closed the final 6:33 of the half on a 22-2 run to take render the game over before the break.

“We ran into a buzzsaw today with Maryland,” said McKeown. “They played great and came out on fire. It was 27-22. I felt like we were in a good position, we just needed to make a couple more shots, and then that second-quarter run just got us. We couldn’t score and they started.”

Maryland shot a blistering 69% from the field in the first half and 59% for the game. It outscored NU by 32 despite taking six fewer shots than the Wildcats. Playing three games in three days, the ‘Cats just ran out of gas mentally and physically.

For as non-competitive as Northwestern was in the defeat, the trip to Indianapolis was successful as the team prepares for its first NCAA Tournament in six years. Last season, it had high hopes to compete for a conference tournament title as the two-seed but lost to Michigan in the quarterfinals.

What this week’s three games made clear was how Northwestern can make in the NCAA Tournament, which starts in just over a week. NU knew it couldn’t beat Maryland, the nation’s top offense, in a high-scoring affair. The ‘Cats were able to put UMD through one of its toughest tests of the season on February 28 because they dragged it into the mud and slugged it out defensively, holding a team that averages 91 points per game to a season-low 62.

This time around, Maryland moved the ball with ease, got out in transition, hit threes and they were able to play inside out. Junior guard Veronica Burton couldn’t point to one specific area as to why the ‘Cats struggled but said postgame that the loss was more mental and that sloppiness on offense affected their defense.

“They got the ball reversed on us, which we made it hard for Michigan to do that,” said McKeown. “Maryland was able to penetrate into gaps, find open players, and we just didn’t guard the ball as well as we’re capable. We didn’t guard the ball as well as we did the first time we played Maryland, so I thought that was a big difference.”

The loss showed what Northwestern can’t do in San Antonio. The ‘Cats thrive off of turnovers and sport the best turnover margin in the country at 9.6 per game. They lost that battle by two. They’re also one of the best teams at taking care of the ball, ranking sixth in assist to turnover ratio at 1.4. Maryland forced them to commit 13 assists to 15 turnovers.

It likely won’t win in a shootout. Only once this year has NU won when it allowed 80 points or more, and that was against defensively inconsistent Iowa. The ‘Cats thrive when games are in the 60s and 50s, as evidenced by their impressive wins over Illinois and Michigan. They shot just 39% in both of the wins and relied on Burton and Lindsey Pulliam to combine for an average of 39.5 points per game.

“We let a lot slide that really isn’t usually how we play,” said Burton postgame. “That’s not the type of game that we want, and I think that’s something that we really have to carry. We understand just throughout this whole tournament that we can be one of the best teams. But we have to play like it and it starts in the beginning and we have to hold through.”

The formula is to turn teams over, slow the game down and let Burton and Pulliam cook. Execute the little things well and don’t squander points. The size and offensive firepower aren’t there like they was last year, and the backcourt duo can only do so much every night, but the Michigan game showed how the Wildcats can beat top-15 teams.

McKeown admitted his team hasn’t been consistent scoring the ball and said it must be careful with it in the tournament. This week, the message will be on shooting the ball with confidence and getting to the basket.

At this point in the season, the Wildcats aren’t turning into an offensive juggernaut. That doesn’t mean they can’t make noise, though, since they know how they can beat some of the best.