It was like something out of a storybook.
After missing the NCAA Tournament for four consecutive seasons in which they never once threatened for a Big Ten title, much less a national one, the Northwestern Wildcats had entirely flipped the script in the 2019-2020 season.
Led by unanimous All-Big Ten first-teamer Lindsey Pulliam, who put up 20 points or more on 14 occasions, the ‘Cats were all of a sudden a force to be reckoned with. You could count the number of games they lost on one hand, and you wouldn’t even need to use all your fingers.
They clinched a share of the Big Ten regular-season title before an electric crowd at home against Illinois. The student section, fuller than it had been for a single men’s basketball game all year long, stormed the court with glee. The players broke into an impromptu dance circle at center court. It was as much awesome as it was unthinkable just a short few months earlier.
Even when they were unexpectedly bounced from the Big Ten Tournament in the first round by Michigan a week later, the energy surrounding the program remained high. They had bigger things on their mind, after all. The NCAA Tournament was soon to come, and it was likely that the ‘Cats would be a four-seed, if not better, and host their own regional.
And then, like so much in 2020, everything changed. COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the tournament. Selection Monday never came. Northwestern’s dream season was over. And just like that, the fairytale ended like a horror story.
Or did it? Perhaps that was just a chapter in the book, not its end. At least that’s the narrative that this year’s Wildcats have portrayed.
After NU was announced as the Alamo Region’s seven-seed in this year’s Big Dance, Pulliam reflected on how last year’s ending has fueled their efforts this season.
“We always remember that moment when they told us the season was done and we weren’t gonna be able to play in the NCAA Tournament,” she said. “Right from that moment, our goal was to get there this year and have that same mindset.”
Evidently, the Wildcats accomplished that goal, albeit with more difficulty than they had last year. This season’s team didn’t win the Big Ten, nor did they come particularly close. They dropped games to significantly inferior opponents — namely non-tournament qualifier Nebraska on two separate occasions — something last year’s team never really did. Their offense has been wildly ineffective at times without the consistent three-point threat Abi Scheid offered and the post presence Abbie Wolf provided last year, and Pulliam hasn’t been the reliable force she was in the 2019-20 campaign. So, even if this year’s team manages to catch lightning in a bottle and put together some sort of run, why should their success be tied to last year’s sensational squad?
The answer requires us to look past the dream sequence of 2020 all the way back to what seems like a different era in Northwestern Women’s Basketball. At the end of the 2018-2019 regular season, the ‘Cats sat at 16-14, which was just good enough to get them into the WNIT. The expectations for NU weren’t high whatsoever, perhaps that they’d win a game or two before exiting.
Instead, they did what was, at the time, unbelievable, rattling off five straight wins (three of which came on the road) before falling to Arizona at a packed McKale Center in the tournament’s championship.
Will such a feat ever gain much recognition or remembrance? No. But what the ‘Cats learned from the experience is far more valuable than anything it could have provided on its own.
Much like that WNIT team, this year’s Wildcats aren’t expected to play very deep into March. If they can get by UCF on Sunday, they’ll likely face a Louisville team that plays some of the best ball in the country. Everything about how both the Wildcats and Cardinals have performed this year suggests that NU won’t emerge victorious.
But in March of 2019, the ‘Cats sure as hell weren’t supposed to make the WNIT Final. And, as mentioned earlier, no one thought it possible that they would win the Big Ten in 2020... that is, until they did.
So it seems that the story of Northwestern women’s basketball over the past few years has been that of the underdog prevailing. That story isn’t over quite yet. If 2020 was the substance of the book, then 2019 was the prologue. That means that 2021 has the opportunity to be the epilogue and a memorable one at that.
The last page in the fairytale-turned-nightmare of these Wildcats hasn’t been written just yet. There’s still time to right the wrongs the pandemic caused. There’s still a chance for a happy ending.
And, oh, how magical that would be.