On February 29, 2020, Northwestern women’s basketball clinched a share of the Big Ten regular season championship for the first time since 1990. Having strung together nine straight wins and finishing with a conference record of 16-2, the Wildcats were playing great basketball heading into the postseason. Even an atypical loss to Michigan in the first round of the Big Ten tournament couldn’t dim the mood surrounding Joe McKeown’s explosive as they prepared for the NCAA Tournament.
Less than two weeks later, the NCAA cancelled all remaining intercollegiate competitions due to COVID-19, and the dream season was suddenly over.
The ‘Cats near-perfect season was left incomplete, leaving the team and fans alike wondering, “What if ?”
Fast-forward to September, as the NCAA announced that the 2020-21 college basketball season would begin on November 25. Unsure there would even be a college basketball season, the ‘Cats had only two months to regroup and prepare for their redemption tour.
All-conference players Lindsey Pulliam and Veronica Burton returned to anchor the backcourt, but there were clear holes from the previous year’s team. The ‘Cats could no longer rely on Abi Scheid’s long-range shot or Abi Wolfe’s interior presence, as both seniors graduated in the offseason.
Despite the unanswered questions, with bonafide scorers like Pulliam and Burton leading the offense and the vaunted blizzard defense holding down the other side of the court, Northwestern was primed to start the season off strong. And that they did.
After having their first game pushed back a few days when their matchup with Bradley was cancelled, No. 17 Northwestern opened its season against Eastern Illinois on December 10. A shaky start gave way to a dominant performance, as NU forced 24 turnovers and outscored the Panthers 26-6 in the second quarter alone.
Most importantly, the game showed that Burton and Pulliam had some new support in the scoring department. Starters Courtney Shaw, Sydney Wood, and Jordan Hamilton each posted double-digit efforts on eight or more shot attempts from the field, proving that the scoring burden could be shared evenly throughout the team. A 93-57 victory against a non-conference opponent was the perfect opening to the new season.
Four days later, Northwestern opened Big Ten play by beating Minnesota 80-51. The ‘Cats raced out to a 19-3 lead and never looked back. Burton led the way with 20 points, 10 assists and four steals, while Wood finished with an impressive 19 points and eight rebounds. Northwestern’s blizzard defense smothered the Golden Gophers, forcing them to commit 21 turnovers and shoot only 31.7% from the field.
Everyone expected NU’s defense to again be dominant, but it was the incredible offensive efficiency that was unexpected.
“Our offense is doing a really good job of kind of spreading the points out and sharing the ball with each other,” Wood said after the Minnesota game. “I think we’re gelling really well, and we know how to play with one another.”
Through two games, it looked as if NU hadn’t lost a step from the year before.
A trip to West Lafayette extended the ‘Cats unblemished opening record. Behind another incredible performance from Burton, who notched a career high 27 points (and of course five steals), Northwestern easily defeated Purdue, 70-51.
A seven-point burst from Burton early in the first quarter gave the ‘Cats an 11-5 lead, which they maintained throughout the rest of the game. Freshman Paige Mott got her first start, picking up four offensive rebounds in just 12 minutes. Despite Pulliam’s shooting woes — 3-for-16 from the field and 0-for-6 from three — strong performances from Burton and role players like Mott cemented the stability of Northwestern’s new look offense.
The team had no trouble in its next game against Eastern Kentucky, a team that would finish 9-15 in the Ohio Valley Conference. The ‘Cats shot poorly from the field, but when you force an unholy 33 turnovers, some cold shooting can be sustained. With Northwestern leading the entire game, Joe McKeown gave bench players like Paige Mott, Anna Morris, and Lauryn Satterwhite quality minutes. It was slightly concerning that Pulliam shot 0-for-6 from three for the second game in a row, but the 4-0 ‘Cats were winning handedly enough to make Pulliam’s slump an afterthought.
Now ranked No. 16 in the country, Northwestern hosted the 3-3 Nebraska Cornhuskers on New Year’s Eve. Any hopes at a perfect season came crashing down to earth that night in Evanston.
The first half was neck and neck, as Pulliam started out hot, scoring five right out of the gate and finishing the half with 14 points. However, Northwestern only led 38-36 at halftime, thanks to 11 Nebraska offensive rebounds.
In the second half, NU’s offensive deficiencies finally revealed themselves. From the 3:25 mark in the second quarter to the end of the third quarter, Northwestern only scored seven points on one (!) made field goal. The Nebraska game was the first example of the offense grinding to a halt, a tendency which would plague the ‘Cats down the stretch of the season.
Miraculously, Northwestern crawled its way back into the game in the fourth quarter. A Jordan Hamilton layup tied the game with 53 seconds remaining, but Cornhusker guard Sam Haiby grabbed her own missed shot and put up the game-winning layup just before the buzzer. Northwestern’s first loss was a painful 63-61 defeat at the very end of the calendar year.
With the meat of their conference schedule before them, the 4-1 ‘Cats entered January hoping to knock off some of the top teams in the Big Ten and chase their second consecutive conference title.