Northwestern got the call Monday to take part in their eighth-ever NCAA tournament. The Wildcats are the No. 7 seed in the Alamo Region and will go against the No. 10 seed UCF Knights. Here’s everything to know about UCF before Monday’s matchup:
The Knights come into March Madness with the highest seed the program has ever seen. Their 11-2 conference record led them to a second-place finish in the American Conference. UCF has had an impressive season and plays a defensive-minded game similar to the ‘Cats.
It led the nation in scoring defense with just under 50 points surrendered per game. The Knights’ own signature zone defense is much to blame for these historic numbers. The ‘#Trashzone’ as it is referred to by opponents is an aggressive, in-your-face, defense that forces ball-handlers into difficult decisions. Sound familiar?
On the offensive side of the floor, the Knights do not take many shots but are effective when they do. They led the American Conference in three-point percentage at 35% and were third in field goal percentage at 40.7% clip. The offense runs through the hands of guard Diamond Battles, who leads the team in assists, steals and free-throw percentage. Battles, along with fellow guard Courtajia Sanders, led the scoring attack by averaging over 10 points per game each.
Much like Northwestern, UCF’s struggles lie mainly on the offensive side. The Knights ranked eighth in the American in scoring with just over 58 points per game. While some of this may be by design of capitalizing on a suffocating defense, it has also been a cause for concern. The Knights sometimes have trouble keeping up with high-scoring offenses, in particular ones reliant on guard play.
In every one of the Knight’s defeats, it was at the hands of guards. Against Florida Gulf Coast, it was Kierstan Bell’s 26 points that put the Eagles on top. In both losses to USF, the guard trio of Sydni Harvey, Elisa Pinzan and Elena Tsineke led the way, even scoring a combined 60 points in the American Conference Championship. Given the Wildcats’ backcourt talent and frontcourt struggles, this Knights weakness could serve them well.
Players to watch
As previously mentioned, Battles is the motor to the Knights offense. The junior guard averaged a career-high 10.3 points per game along with 2.5 steals and 3.8 assists. She is a splashy guard that looks for the opportunity to hit open shooters or force a fast-break.
Where Battles struggles is in decision making, seen in her negative turnover-assist ratio. Additionally, she has faced challenges shooting the ball and ended with a substandard three-point percentage of 24%.
Sanders is the second half of the scoring backcourt tandem for the Knights. Her 10.5 points per game led the team and her 42.6% field goal percentage backs it. Her scoring is down to 6.2 per game in the month of March, but the break-in play could be the turning of the tides for the senior.
For a team that scores as little as UCF, it is critical that a high number of shots fall. That is a department Lewis has thrived in all season. The sophomore Syracuse-transfer shot a conference-best 45.3% from three while shooting over four per game.
If Battles and Sanders struggle to score, Lewis could be the weapon head coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson deploys.
How Northwestern can win
Northwestern and UCF are extremely similar in play-style. Both sides prioritize defense over everything and have developed a scheme to prove that point. Both sides rely on a strong back-court to score. With such little separation in play-style, the two keys to this contest are rebounding and talent.
The Wildcats’ biggest leg-up over the Knights is the talent gap. Northwestern comes from one of the strongest conferences in the country and is backed by national stars in Veronica Burton and Lindsey Pulliam. Both are perennial scorers and have the potential to have a scoring breakout each time they touch the hardwood. UCF, on the other hand, has just two players averaging double-digit points, neither of which averaged over six points per game last season. Northwestern should be able to rely on talent alone, but in the case the game becomes tight, Courtney Shaw will be a critical component.
For an offense that moves as slowly as UCF’s, not allowing offensive rebounds is dire. The Knights are an efficient scoring team and so when they miss shots, Northwestern has to be ready to step up and not allow second-chances. If Northwestern can control the pace of this game, they’ll come away with their first tournament win since 1993.