Northwestern is in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament bubble in San Antonio as it plays in the Big Dance for the first time in six years. It’s an abnormal setup for the tournament, and it has been anything but a normal year for college athletes, especially for first-years who arrived on campus amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Inside NU caught up with first-year forwards Anna Morris and Paige Mott to hear about their experiences this season.
Inside NU: How has it been settling into Northwestern as first-years during a pandemic?
Anna Morris: As far as team bonding-wise, the pandemic has made it easier, but I don’t feel like I’ve settled into college at all. I only really have friends on the basketball team, and I haven’t met any of my classmates, but I would say the good thing is we’ve gotten closer as a team because we’ve spent all this time together. But as a student, I’ve really struggled to settle in personally, we don’t have any in-person classes, and I don’t really know anyone outside of basketball.
Paige Mott: It was different for me. As soon as I got to campus, I felt like this is home, this is where I’m supposed to be. My first quarter here was difficult, I’m a freshman in this COVID year, and we have to do all the Zoom classes, you have to learn online. But this quarter was a lot better for me. There are fewer practices, more games, so there’s more opportunities for me to show my talents. Even in the classroom, last quarter, I made a lot of mistakes, so this quarter was the time to fix my mistakes, do more tutoring. I’ve actually gotten to know a few of my classmates, not in person, but we talk a lot on the phone and virtually.
INU: As players, how do you feel like you have grown since you got to campus and then since the beginning of the season?
AM: When I came to campus, we were coming right off that quarantine period where I literally was just sitting at home. I had been out of season, couldn’t train and didn’t have any access to a gym. So I was definitely rusty coming in. Strength has been a big thing for me. I feel I’ve gotten so much stronger. We’ve been in a good routine, working with coaches and stuff. Those aspects have definitely improved for me.
PM: Before I was working out and it was hard. But once you get to college, it’s a whole new level of difficulty. We got here, were lifting everyday 6 a.m. and doing conditioning right after. I think the biggest thing for me was my conditioning. My coaches tell me all the time, they can see my conditioning getting better every day. It’s other stuff that I have to work on. I’ve definitely gotten better and am more confident in myself.
INU: You mentioned other things you’ve been working on. What’s one thing on which coaches have worked with you a lot in the last couple of months?
PM: The one thing the coaches have emphasized to me the most is my offense and being more confident in myself. I love defense. I will play defense until the day I die. But on offense is where I struggle sometimes, and sometimes I get a little flustered. They’re working more with me on my confidence.
INU: Veronica said that with Courtney [Shaw] injured you guys were thrown into the fire as first-years. When Courtney got injured, what was going through your mind? Did you sense that like, ‘Okay, here we go this is it.’
PM: I was terrified. I was so nervous, thinking that I don’t really play with the starting five. After maybe the first two games, my nerves kind of went away and I said “Okay, I can play with these girls, it’s not as hard as I thought it would be.” I’m not Courtney. They know I’m not Courtney, and I can’t be her because we’re two different people with different strengths and weaknesses. But we complement each other well, so we’re yin and yang like that.
AM: Before Courtney got injured, I was not playing at all, it was Paige and Courtney. I didn’t know what to expect. When Courtney got hurt I didn’t know if coach was gonna put me in or not, he didn’t really talk to me about it. I just assumed to keep working; I had been working hard, it just wasn’t showing up in my minutes. I was just prepared, staying ready to go and I got my opportunity. But yeah, we all have different strengths. I’m not the same player as Paige, I’m not the same player as Courtney and we’re all super undersized for the hoop position that we play. I like to step out and shoot more and do more of that. When she got injured, I just had to stay ready for that. Even now that she’s back, I’m still trying to find my place, offensively and defensively.
INU: Paige, could you provide any details on maybe where your strengths and weaknesses differ?
PM: Courtney is definitely faster than me. I’m just a slower type of person. I make strength more my thing. She’s fast, really athletic and can jump. And I’m more, ‘you’re just not going to get the ball.’
INU: You mentioned that you’re undersized for the position you’re playing. But you are both two of the tallest players on the roster. When you came into the season, did you have a sense you might be playing more early because the team would need more size?
AM: I have thought that, but also the dynamic of our team, we work so well together like Lindsey, Syd, Jordan, Veronica, that size isn’t necessarily needed. I definitely thought in some games early in the season we could have used more height out there and that we would go with a bigger lineup, but I don’t think coach likes to change it up much.
PM: When I got here, I didn’t think I was gonna play at all. I just didn’t think I was gonna play. I didn’t think I was good enough to be on the floor with these girls, but then we started playing against like 6-foot-3, 6-foot-4 people, and I realized it wasn’t as hard as I thought it was gonna be. Like 6-foot-5, that’s a cap, I don’t know what’s gonna happen. But I’m like “6-foot-3? Okay, she’s not that much taller than me. I can guard her, I can go against her.”
INU: How comfortable do you feel compared to two months ago?
AM: I definitely feel more comfortable. My offense has not developed as much as I thought it would, but confidence-wise on defense I don’t doubt myself as much. With our defense, there’s so many interchangeable positions, like we could be playing a wing or the hoop. For me, I just have to keep working towards perfecting those movements.
PM: I’m a lot more comfortable playing with these girls and just playing undersized in our position. We beat a lot of really good teams, a few games that “we weren’t supposed to win or something.” I’m just really confident in this team and in my abilities every time we go on the floor
INU: You’re playing in the NCAA Tournament as first-years. What does that mean to you to be able to do that?
AM: Yeah, I’m just super excited. This is an opportunity that not a lot of people get, so just the experience of being here and obviously hoping to win the games.
PM: I’m really excited. The team that did a whole bunch of this work last year, and this is the show for it. We’re just here on the ride. We helped, but this is really what they were supposed to get last year.
INU: When you arrived on campus, did you get a sense of urgency?
PM: Yeah. We’ve had a lot of games, during the season, postseason, that we’re like, “This is ours. This is what we need to do. This is makeup from last year. This is a revenge tour. This is what we want to do because this is what we did last year. And this is how much we can accomplish.”
AM: The atmosphere is definitely like this is getting done. It would almost be more of a shocker if we didn’t take care of what we need to take care of. Not making the tournament would have been more of a shocker. With our energy in practice every day it’s not even a question that we belong at the top.
INU: You’re coming onto this team, and there’s this message or theme about what happened last year, but you weren’t here last year. Is that weird?
PM: It is so weird. They got rings the other day, and we were just sitting on the side like ‘we can’t get these, oh geez.’
INU: How does it feel to be a part of the team that gets to the Tournament?
PM: It’s so exciting. The coaches tell us every day that we’re not freshmen anymore, because we’ve been here and have to grow up into our roles. It feels like we’ve been here forever. What they did last year, it feels like it’s a part of us too, even though we didn’t contribute to it. All of our team wins this season are like a boost of adrenaline. We love being here, we’re super excited to play and we can’t wait to keep going up.
INU: What lessons have you taken and do you think you will take from this pandemic season?
AM: Mentally this year has been so taxing. The one thing I’ve had through it all is basketball. So I feel like going forward, once everything gets better, just having basketball and bringing an effort every day, that’s the one thing I can control. So much has been out of control this year that basketball, my effort, my attitude and my approach to it is what I can control. Just don’t take it for granted and make the most of every moment.
PM: I completely agree with that. I would say my lessons are make the most of every moment and be patient. There’s a lot of stuff that we don’t know about the virus and about basketball and about everything that’s going to go about. Even here in the bubble, we don’t know our schedule until 6 a.m. the day of. I’m not a person who goes by plans every day, we could just do something and I’ll be fine because my schedule is pretty flexible. But I do like to know what’s going to happen so I know when I have free time. Having patience with myself and with our coaches and whoever makes the schedules is one of the biggest things for me, because I get antsy sometimes when I don’t know what’s about to happen or I feel like I’m going to be late for something.
The 7-seed Wildcats face 10-seed University of Central Florida on Monday at 3 p.m. CT.