Since the very beginning of the month of February, the script has largely been a familiar one for Joe McKeown and Northwestern women’s basketball, which finished the regular season 13-7 (11-7 Big Ten) after a 63-58 road loss to No. 12 Michigan on Sunday, earning the fifth seed in the upcoming conference tournament.
The Wildcats have shot below 40 percent in six of their past seven games, a span in which they are 3-4, with the other two victories coming against the two worst teams in the Big Ten. They have failed to crack 70 points even once. They have been out-rebounded all seven times, four times by nine boards or more.
For the season, Northwestern is 2-7 when it fails to reach 40 percent shooting from the field. It is 11-0, though, when it hits that mark. The ‘Cats are also 3-7 when they get out-rebounded by more than three boards.....and 10-0 when they keep the margin closer or win it (in case you are curious, the wins in each measure come from different games). Last but not least, NU is 5-7 when failing to score 70 points, and 8-0 when it surpasses that mark.
It all looks pretty straightforward on paper, particularly those first two stats. Score with any measure of consistency, avoid getting hammered on the boards, and this team’s incredible ball-control skills and ability to turn opponents over will be enough to secure wins against virtually any foe. As the Wildcats found out once again on Sunday, that just isn’t easy to do, particularly against top-tier competition for a team that is both generally undersized and unable to find easy ways to score in the half court.
“The biggest thing is that we’ve gotta get a little bit healthier,” said McKeown when asked about how his team can combat the persistent offensive difficulties that have plagued his squad of late. “This Big Ten season, with all of its stops and starts, it has made it difficult to build continuity.”
While McKeown appeared to largely be referencing his banged-up guards (Sydney Wood, Veronica Burton, and Lindsey Pulliam are each top 10 in the conference in minutes per game, and all have seen time on the bench during games due to injuries at least once over the past month), the most important piece of the puzzle with regards to Northwestern’s health may have already fallen into place.
Junior forward Courtney Shaw, who missed the first six of those seven aforementioned games as part of a six-week-long absence due to a lower leg injury, returned Sunday, though she was on a pitch count. In the 19 minutes she saw on the court, the Wildcats played some of their best basketball of the season.
When she is at her best, Shaw can contribute significantly to every crucial statistic NU has been failing to achieve of late. Field goal percentage? The Maryland native is knocking down a whopping 60 percent of her looks right now, with only Sydney Wood joining her among Wildcat regulars crossing the 41 percent threshold.
Scoring in general? Paige Mott and Anna Morris have battled hard on the interior in their first seasons being exposed to major conference college basketball, but Shaw is a seasoned, capable roller and finisher in the paint against even the most physical opponents. Rebounding? Shaw collects 7.1 per game, including 3.4 on the offensive end, in just 26 minutes per contest, nearly two full boards above any other player.
All of that came to bear in her minutes on Sunday. While Shaw played, Northwestern outscored the Wolverines and their All-American front line by four across 19 hard-fought minutes (she was the only Wildcat to finish with a positive plus-minus). When the junior was on the bench, NU was out-rebounded 27-12 (8-2 on the offensive end). With her in, though, the ‘Cats came out even on the glass at 19-19 (and up 7-5 on the offensive end).
“We’re a small team. We’ve played small ball all year,” said McKeown. “So to have somebody that can rebound at that level [come back] is really exciting for us headed into the Big Ten Tournament.”
Even that doesn’t go quite far enough. Shaw’s workmanlike nine points (on 4-of-5 shooting) and seven rebounds were impressive in her first game action in over a month, but the clear impact she had on the game outside of just the box score stats was even more striking.
Shaw may stand at only 6-foot-0, but when the Wildcats have their tenacious forward back in the lineup, their level of play can rise just about as high as that of any other team in the country. And even with the team’s lackluster run of recent play, that transformation appears to be happening just in the nick of time.