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Rapid Reaction: Northwestern survives UCF 62-51 to advance to NCAA Tournament Round of 32

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The Knights were good, but Lindsey Pulliam was better.

Bahram Mark Sobhani

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — The streak is finally over.

For the first time since 1993, Northwestern women's basketball won an NCAA Tournament game, downing 10-seed UCF 62-51 in the First Round on Monday afternoon. After missing the tournament for five consecutive years, the Wildcats proved they weren’t happy to just make the Big Dance.

Despite its struggles in the latter half of the season, Northwestern’s offense, led by senior guard Lindsey Pulliam, held its own against the nation’s best scoring defense. NU shot an impressive 51% from the field, including 30% from three, and scored 13 more points than UCF normally allows. On the defensive end, the ‘Cats were flawless, holding the Knights to just 51 points and forcing 20 turnovers that they converted into 21 points.

On the game’s biggest stage, Pulliam had a mission and carried her team through with 25 points on 9-of-16 shooting. Junior forward Courtney Shaw gave crucial minutes against a bigger UCF team, scoring 12 points and recording four rebounds and three blocks. Jordan Hamilton and Paige Mott added eight and seven points each while the senior guard had eight assists.

UCF was aggressive on both ends of the court out of the gate, scoring the first three buckets of the game to take a 6-0 lead while Northwestern missed a few threes on the other end. Pulliam put an end to the scoreless start, connecting on back-to-back shots and scoring her 2,000th career point just minutes into the game. She continued to create on offense, finding Shaw and Hamilton for buckets to cut the Knights’ lead to 10-8. Hamilton and Shaw then extended Northwestern’s run to 7-0, giving the Wildcats their first lead of the day at 13-10. They maintained a 14-12 lead after the first.

The Knights struck first again in the second quarter, hitting a three to take over the lead. Veronica Burton then scored her first points of the game by hitting two free throws, but UCF continued to answer. Midway through the quarter, the Knights’ second-leading scorer Diamond Battles had to be carried to the locker room with an injury and didn’t return. She had a team-high six points when she exited.

However, her departure sparked Alisha Lewis to hit consecutive shots during a rough stretch for NU to give UCF a 23-17 lead with five minutes remaining in the half. Then, Pulliam took over, hitting three shots in a row including a clutch baseline three to tie it up at 24. She finished the quarter with nine.

Northwestern’s defense continued to force UCF into tough shots deep into the shot clock. The Knights also battled foul trouble toward the end of the half, with four players committing two or more fouls. UCF’s late half troubles and NU’s strong play allowed the ‘Cats to make their last four shots and end the second quarter on a 13-3 run to take a 30-26 lead into the break.

After exchanging buckets in the second half’s opening minutes, both teams looked sloppy for much of the third quarter. The Wildcats turned it over four times in 90 seconds while UCF missed five consecutive shots. After a few dead minutes, Burton ended Northwestern’s four-minute scoring drought followed by a beautiful mid-range three-point play from Pulliam to extend NU’s lead to 37-29. UCF answered back with two buckets of its own, but a pair of layups from Shaw brought the lead back to eight. Mott entered the game for Shaw in the final minutes of the third and hit a layup NU a 43-33 lead, heading into the fourth.

Early in the fourth quarter, Northwestern’s lead kept growing behind huge shots from Mott and Lauryn Satterwhite. With under eight minutes to play, NU led comfortably led by 15. However, UCF then mustered up a 9-0 run sparked by Courtajia Sanders and Brittney Smith, which cut Northwestern’s lead to 50-44 with under five minutes to go. Some questionable refereeing saw Burton foul out midway through the fourth. She finished the day with four points, six rebounds and three assists.

Despite some careless mistakes in the final few minutes, Northwestern was able to keep the Knights at arm’s length. Even a late-game surge from Masseny Kaba wasn’t enough to outshine Pulliam’s showstopping performance.

Kaba led the Knights with 14 points and 13 rebounds, helping her team outrebound NU 39-to-24, including 16-to-2 on the offensive boards. Smith scored 10 points, and Sanders added nine.

The Wildcats advance to the Round of 32 where they will face the winner of 2-seed Louisville vs. 15-seed Marist on Wednesday. That game tips off at 7 p.m. CT.