After a top-four finish in the Big Ten tournament, Northwestern received a No. 7 seed as an at-large bid in this year’s NCAA tournament. The ‘Cats will face 10-seeded UCF in the first round in the Alamo region of the bracket. While Northwestern would have made March Madness last season, likely as a three- or four-seed, the tournament was canceled due to COVID-19, meaning a now-six-year hiatus from March Madness will end for McKeown and co. on Tuesday. Let’s revisit the last time Northwestern women’s basketball made the tournament.
It’s almost déjà vu. Taking the time machine back to 2015, the Wildcats entered the NCAA Tournament at 23-8 (12-6 B1G), earning the seventh seed in the Oklahoma City region. The squad didn’t enter the AP Top 25 until Week 16 and remained there at No. 23 heading into postseason play.
Northwestern, quite obviously, featured zero players on the team that remain today. They were led by sophomores Nia Coffey and Ashley Deary and junior Maggie Lyon, who averaged 15.8, 10 and 13.8 points, respectively. Senior Alex Cohen added 8.8 points and 4.9 rebounds of her own on the season.
The Wildcats’ opponent in the first round of the 2015 tournament against 10-seed Arkansas, who spent time in the AP Poll early in the season but fell out quickly after losing back-to-back games to South Dakota State and Rutgers. The Razorbacks entered the postseason at 17-13 (6-10 SEC) and snuck into the tournament due in large part to upset wins over two ranked teams in Iowa and Georgia.
Northwestern opened the game on a bit of a scoring drought, falling behind 9-2 in the first five minutes of the game before Coffey hit two free throws, Deary followed with a two and Cohen buried a three to tie the game up at nine apiece.
From there, the first half was sloppy. It featured a fair amount of missed shots and turnovers on both sides. The half would end with the two teams tied at 23. The Wildcats managed to outscore the Razorbacks 14-0 in the paint in the first 20 minutes. Arkansas had five points in the first half come from the free-throw line, and while that normally may be insignificant, it played a large role in keeping the Razorbacks in this game.
Coming out of the locker room, the ‘Cats jumped out to a six-point lead on layups by Lyon, Deary and Cohen. Arkansas failed to score their first points of the half until about three minutes in on two free throws from Kelsey Brooks. Soon after, Lyon buried a three on an assist from Cohen to push the lead to seven points.
As the half continued, the Wildcats and Razorbacks would continue to trade buckets. As the midway point of the half approached, however, the ‘Cats jumped out to a 13-point lead as they went on a 9-2 run of their own.
From there, however, Northwestern would stall. After scoring 25 points in the first 10 minutes of the second half, the ‘Cats would go on to score just nine points in the final 10 minutes of the game. Arkansas, meanwhile, came storming back. As the Wildcats stood still at 51 points, the Razorbacks scored 10 unanswered to make it a two-point game with just over five minutes to go.
All of a sudden, the game was coming down to the wire. Despite seeing their 12-point lead evaporate over the span of four minutes, the ‘Cats went up four with four minutes to go off of a Cohen layup, but a win just wasn’t meant to happen. Arkansas grabbed their first lead of the half with 30 seconds to go in the game on a made free throw from Jessica Jackson and would hold on from there. The ‘Cats fell 57-55.
Despite outshooting the Razorbacks by 13% from the field and beyond the arc, Northwestern still lost this one, due in large part to turning the ball over nine more times than their opponent and being out-rebounded by five. Cohen and Deary both finished with 13 points as the Wildcats ended their season at 23-9.
One can only hope for a better showing as they take on UCF on Monday.