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Northwestern has all the pieces but just has to learn how to put them together

The Wildcats were on their way to the Sweet 16 before familiar problems haunted them.

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — With its season on the line, Northwestern showed up ready to play.

Through the first 10 minutes of their NCAA Tournament Round of 32 matchup with 2-seed Louisville, it was the 7-seed Wildcats who looked the part of the top-10 team, jumping out to a dominant 25-10 lead over the ACC Champions.

Senior guard Jordan Hamilton was a perfect 4-for-4 from the field, including 2-for-2 from three, with 12 points in the quarter while her team combined to shoot 64% from the field and make all four of its attempts from deep. On the defensive end, the ‘Cats held the Cardinals to 22% shooting and registered six blocks — by far their best single-quarter performance of the year.

An upset was brewing, as NU led by as much as 18 points, until things steadily took a turn for the worse. Northwestern’s momentum and offense vanished, as it went scoreless for the first 5:22 of the second quarter, allowing Louisville to cut the lead to single digits. They were still able to recover from that dry spell and regain their sizable lead, but a seven-point second quarter was a harbinger of their demise.

The second half was all Cards, and they outscored the ‘Cats 42-21 after halftime. Another nearly six-minute scoring drought to end the third and begin the fourth quarter led to a 17-0 Louisville run from which NU could not recover.

“They started hitting shots, and ours weren’t dropping in the same way,” said junior guard Veronica Burton. “I think we had the same fight. We wanted it still. It’s just things started going their way. I guess it’s just tough, we ran out of gas it seemed like.”

When they needed someone to hit a shot, the Wildcats couldn’t find an answer. Lindsey Pulliam was just 1-for-11 with four points in her final collegiate game while Hamilton shot just 2-for-13 and 1-for-7 from three after her stellar first quarter.

“They were physical,” said head coach Joe McKeown. “We were aggressive trying to get to the basket. We just had a lot of shots that I thought were really good shots that didn’t go in. I thought we defended them probably as good as anybody could guard them, but they've got a lot of talent — their players make plays. I think defensively they just pushed us out and made us play side-to-side instead of downhill. And when we did, it was really physical, so we missed a lot of shots that you wish you had back.”

The Cardinals for most of the afternoon didn’t look like the eighth-ranked team in the nation, and the Blizzard defense tested them more than anyone has. The Wildcats held them 16 points below their season average, limited them to just 36% shooting, forced 16 turnovers and held second-leading scorer Hailey Van Lith to just four shot attempts. The defense was nothing short of flawless, but as we’ve seen all season, it’s the offensive execution and the little things that cost Northwestern the game.

“We let up,” said Burton. “Credit to Louisville, they’re a great team. But I don’t really think it was anything that they did. It was more on us.”

Similar culprits like poor shooting, free throws and rebounding caused the Wildcats’ downfall. The Cardinals grabbed nine more boards, and NU shot just 54% from the charity stripe (7-for-13) and connected on just 23% of its shots after the magical first quarter. On the game’s biggest stage, Northwestern’s persistent problems were exacerbated — issues that must be addresses if it wants to build on this historic NCAA Tournament appearance.

“I think we have a team full of talent and hard workers,” said Burton. “So there’s not a doubt in my mind that we’ll be back. It’s just getting those little things done from beginning to end we’ve seen in the season, and we hate for it to come down to that.”

As frustrating as blowing an 18-point lead to a top-10 opponent was, Northwestern can take many positives from Wednesday’s outing, the NCAA Tournament and the year as a whole.

The first 10 minutes proved that this team can run with the best of them, and we’ve seen them play competitive halves against multiple top-10 opponents now. The consistency just wasn’t there. Even though Louisville certainly wasn’t at its best either, the Cards’ struggles can be credited to the impressive play of the Blizzard, which again this year confused opponents, even with an undersized lineup. It’s that defense that will win it a championship one day.

Northwestern has the talent to belong with the best in the nation, and it’ll bring in a top-10 recruiting class this fall. It just has to learn how to put all the pieces together. Once it can fill the gaps and solve its solvable problems, it’ll be the last team anyone wants to face come March.

“At the end of the day, hard work and effort is what it comes down to,” said Burton. “I think a lot of people underestimate Northwestern. I think a lot of people underestimate the Big Ten. And we’re happy to be proving people wrong. I think we made a statement tonight...And I just feel like we’ve learned that we’re capable, and we have a lot of potential, and we belong here.”