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Pulliam meets the moment, powers Northwestern to first NCAA Tournament win in 28 years

In a city full of missions, Lindsey Pulliam is on one of her own.

Bahram Mark Sobhani

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Two-thousand twenty-one points later, Lindsey Pulliam won her first NCAA Tournament game.

The senior guard put on a vintage display of confidence Monday to score 25 points and lift Northwestern (16-8, 11-7 Big Ten) over Central Florida (16-4, 11-2 AAC) 62-51 in the First Round of the NCAA Women’s Tournament while becoming just the third player in program history to cross the 2,000-point mark.

Confidence is nothing new for the player head coach Joe McKeown affectionately nicknamed “amnesia.” Pulliam displayed unbridled conviction in the week leading up to Monday’s game, telling reporters without hesitation that NU’s defense would outplay UCF’s nation-best scoring defense. She also vowed to leave everything she had on the court.

Four years of work sunk the Knights. Pulliam, playing in the biggest game of her decorated career, was just too good. When the Wildcats fell in an early 6-0 hole and looked confused on offense by UCF’s swarming zone, she nailed two jumpers to kickstart her team.

“At the end of the day, I’m just gonna do whatever my team needs me to do to win, and today it was scoring and being aggressive,” said Pulliam. “It’s really big seeing the ball go in early, but I was gonna keep shooting whether I made them or not.”

After not taking a shot for nearly 10 minutes, she exploded in a span of 2:44 to score nine points as part of a 13-3 Northwestern run to take a 30-26 lead into break, one that it wouldn’t relinquish.

There’s been so much of a focus on what could have been for NU last year, when it won a share of the Big Ten regular season title and was projected to host the first two rounds of the tournament as a top-four seed. But when the coronavirus denied the Wildcats their first chance to dance since 2015 and first win in the event since 1993, they had to wait an extra year.

During the early stages of the pandemic, Pulliam found access to empty gyms near her home and would spend her days putting up shots. It looked Monday like she was performing for an audience of none and UCF just happened to be there as she went through a practice routine. She got to her favorite spots, darted to find holes in the defense for her patented pull ups, finished in traffic and spotted up from three with a hand in her face.

“It’s amazing, this is what I’ve worked for during my four years, me and my teammates, so to finally see it come to light and come to life, I don’t even know how to put it into words,” said Pulliam. “But obviously it’s very exciting for us and just a great feeling.”

Northwestern needed everything it got from the four-time All-Big Ten honoree against the pesky Knights. She played all 40 minutes and her 9-of-16 shooting afternoon was one of her most efficient performances of the season, and she was a perfect 6-of-6 on free throws. Pulliam’s backcourt partner, point guard Veronica Burton, uncharacteristically fouled out with 5:06 left in the fourth quarter.

At that point, UCF was on a 7-0 run, and a layup soon thereafter brought a once 15-point NU lead down to a shaky six. After a Northwestern timeout, Pulliam regrouped the troops and hit a layup through contact for a three-point play to give the ‘Cats some much needed breathing room. When the Knights again cut things to six, she responded with another layup with 1:27 to go.

With Burton out, Pulliam said she wanted to step up, lead and keep her teammates calm and focused. Her coach has seen that competitiveness and leadership from the minute she arrived in Evanston, and it reminds him of former program greats Nia Coffey and Anucha Browne, the only other Wildcats to score 2,000 points.

“Today we saw what she’s capable of, what she’s done her whole career for us,” said McKeown. “I’m more proud of her for what she’s done for our program as a leader and off the court, she does everything the right way. To score 2,000 points in college basketball, in our league that doesn’t happen every day, and to be in that company says a lot about Lindsey.”

This was a moment in the making for four years. NU played its home games at Evanston Township High School and went 12-20 in Pulliam’s freshman season. She reached the WNIT championship game as a sophomore and was primed to reach this stage last year. Monday, she helped her school earn its first NCAA Tournament victory in 28 years.

After the final buzzer sounded, Pulliam held up one finger to the crowd. It’s one win, and she didn’t come to San Antonio to play one game. She’s not ready to be done. The 7-seed Wildcats will be considerable underdogs to 2-seed Louisville in the Round of 32, and the infectious Pulliam swagger only grows.

“I’m beyond confident,” she said. “I’m taking us over anybody.”