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Women’s basketball post-mortem, January: In the heat of conference play

Ah, the ups and downs of Big Ten basketball.

@nuwbball on Twitter.

Northwestern entered the turn of the year in a bit of a rut, having just sustained their first loss of the season on New Year’s Eve to a Nebraska buzzer beater while the majority of their conference schedule still looming ahead. The last-minute loss should have given the ‘Cats a chip on their shoulder heading into their first matchup of the New Year against No. 16 Michigan. Instead, they had a rude awakening in store.

The contest against the Wolverines on January 3 was highly anticipated—a matchup of two ranked teams and a chance for No. 19 Northwestern to claim revenge on the team that knocked them out of the Big Ten Tournament the year prior. However, eventual Big Ten Player of the Year Naz Hillmon and teammate Leigha Brown combined for 48 of Michigan’s 84 points and were simply too tough for the ‘Cats to handle. Nonetheless, there were some bright spots in the 84-63 loss, mainly in the form of a stellar performance from Sydney Wood, who showed out with a season-high 19 points and 7 rebounds.

If the chip wasn’t on the ‘Cats shoulders after their loss against Nebraska, it was on their shoulders now. Northwestern steamrolled through its next four games with a vengeance. Given, three of the four opponents — Wisconsin, Penn State and Illinois — were more than beatable, the ‘Cats impressed by winning each game by at least 10 points.

On their trip up Madison to face the Badgers, Northwestern was shaky out of the gates, ending the first quarter up only two. However, they pulled away in the second quarter, establishing a dominant 23-point lead that they would hold for the rest of the matchup. Surprisingly, Northwestern’s offense was the story of the 80-55 win, as four of five starters posted double-digit point totals, among them being Courtney Shaw who racked up a career-high 15 points and 9 rebounds.

Riding high off an all-around team win, the No. 22 ranked ‘Cats returned to Evanston to face a promising 8-1 Iowa team who sought to take down their first ranked opponent of the season. However, the Hawkeyes’ hopes were shattered as the notorious blizzard defense held freshman phenom Caitlin Clark to only eight points, which remains the only game in her collegiate career that she has scored fewer than 10 points. Additionally, the ‘Cats converted 18 Hawkeye turnovers into an impressive 28 points.

Nearly everything went right in the 77-67 win. Northwestern shot 46% from behind the arc, while Jordan Hamilton, Veronica Burton and Sydney Wood all approached 20 points by the end of the contest. The three also combined for 17 rebounds, while Wood and Burton pulled in three steals each. Hamilton was the star of the night on offense, though, hitting three three-pointers and collecting a season-high 19 points.

The ‘Cats were ready to continue their momentum after the January 9, as they were set to face Rutgers just six days later. However, due to COVID-19 concerns within the Scarlet Knights’ program, the road trip was postponed and Northwestern earned a well deserved 12-day break before continuing conference play on the road against Penn State.

Northwestern picked apart the Nittany Lions in their usual fashion, snagging 17 steals and 24 points off turnovers in the 67-50 victory. Notably, freshman Paige Mott earned some playing time and notched a career-high six points to round out her appearance, marking a milestone in her first year.

The final victory in the ‘Cats four game streak for the month of January came in the form of a dominant 73-54 win over the rival Illini. This matchup was Lindsay Pulliam’s first true “Lindsay Pulliam” game of the season. She led all scorers with an impressive 28 points and was pivotal in maintaining the lead for the entire 40 minutes of play. Pulliam’s performance also boosted her to fifth in the school record books for all-time scoring with 1,790 points at the time.

Unfortunately, the win streak came to an end on January 24 against the Indiana Hoosiers in Evanston. With Shaw out due to a lower body injury sustained against Illinois, the ‘Cats were forced to change up their usual starting five last minute. Paige Mott performed admirably in collecting seven rebounds, but her contributions fell short of what Northwestern needed that night.

The matchup was back and forth as both teams traded scoring runs, before a late fourth quarter drought brought on Northwestern’s demise. Despite leading 54-48 heading into the final frame thanks to double-digit scoring performances from Pulliam, Burton and Wood, the ‘Cats struggled to finish when it counted the most, and lost their first matchup in three weeks, 74-61.

In the down-time between the Indiana loss and the ‘Cats next matchup, Veronica Burton finally received the recognition she deserved. Burton was announced as a member of the 2021 Naismith Women’s Defensive Player of the Year watchlist on January 26, cementing her as a force to be reckoned with on the national stage.

Naturally, it was Burton and her backcourt partner Pulliam who led the way for the ‘Cats to complete their first season sweep of the Hawkeyes in nearly 40 years to round out the month. Pulliam poured in an easy 27 points during the back-and-forth affair , while Burton chipped in 20 points of her own in the hard-fought 87-80 victory.

The ‘Cats entered February feeling confident and looking to continue the relative success they sustained in January heading into their next matchups, including another top-25 bout against a solid Ohio State team as the culmination of regular season play loomed in the distance.