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Making a Masterpiece — How Northwestern’s stellar 2021 recruiting class was built

Five new faces will arrive in Evanston next week.

Photo via NU Sports Team Website

Coming off the program’s first NCAA tournament victory since 1993, the Northwestern women’s basketball team will have a much different composition as compared to seasons past. Lindsey Pulliam — the third-leading scorer in program history — has graduated and left for the professional ranks, while four-year contributor Jordan Hamilton is headed to Palo Alto to play for the national champion Stanford Cardinal as a grad transfer. The ‘Cats obviously aren’t devoid of talent, returning star guards in Veronica Burton and Sydney Wood, as well as center Courtney Shaw, for their senior seasons, but the rest of the roster remains largely unproven.

That’s why this recruiting class, ranked as the tenth-best in the entire nation and the highest-rated class to ever come through Evanston, is so vital to the continued success of this program that coaches Joe McKeown and Kate Popovec, as well as the rest of the staff, have built. Here’s everything you need to know about the newest batch of Wildcats coming to a basketball court near you.

Hailey Weaver

ESPN: #35

5-11 Guard

Solon, Ohio

Committed 3/1/2020

Northwestern’s first commitment came mere hours after they secured their first Big Ten championship in three decades, adding to the day’s celebration. Weaver is an energetic guard whose spirit on the court is matched only by her personality off of it. With tremendous length, athleticism, and a determination to stay moving at all times, Weaver should fit perfectly into Northwestern’s Blizzard defense.

Weaver’s recruitment began her freshman year of high school when she turned heads at AAU tournaments. Her first offer came from the University of Akron, with Kentucky and Illinois quickly following suit. It wasn’t until a camp in early July during which she balled out in front of both Popovec and McKeown that Northwestern joined the bandwagon. Weaver was playing so well that Coach McKeown mistakenly took her for a junior before it was pointed out to him by Popovec that she was actually a freshman at the time, simply playing above her level and dominating. McKeown talked with Weaver’s dad at the camp, and a few weeks later she had an offer.

Weaver committed to NU for a variety of reasons, one being the strong relationship her and Coach Popovec built during the recruitment process, talking at least once every week, according to Weaver. She also stressed the importance of her education during an interview with Inside NU, citing the school’s academic standard as the main reason behind her choosing Northwestern.

Perhaps most interestingly, it was Weaver’s relationship with fellow class member Jillian Brown (who you’ll soon learn more about!) that led her to NU. Before telling anyone on Northwestern’s staff that she was committing, Weaver told Brown. Brown was thrilled, and this assured Weaver that she was committing to the right school for the right reasons.

February 29, 2020 was a huge day for Weaver and the program, but she stressed that bigger things are ahead.

“I would love to win four more,” said Weaver after watching the ‘Cats win the Big Ten title back in 2020, though she knows it’s going to take a lot to reach that goal.

“I still have so much to learn.”

Jillian Brown

ESPN: #50

5-10 Guard

Grand Rapids, Michigan

Offered 11/2019, Committed 3/17/2020

Jillian Brown has basketball in her blood. Her older sister, Olivia, played at St. Bonaventure before transferring to Valparaiso. Her younger sister Macy is no joke either, with offers from Michigan, Nebraska, Michigan State and Northwestern. The experience of going through Olivia’s process taught Jillian patience.

“She looked at everything and was very self-assured that this [Northwestern] was the best fit,” said Popovec.

During her sophomore year of high school, she watched Duke take on the ‘Cats and witnessed them fall to Northwestern. This was her first exposure to the team, as she wasn’t recruited by Northwestern until her junior year. In fact, Brown initiated the relationship, reaching out to Northwestern because she knew that both the athletic and academic programs were stellar.

Later on, she narrowed down her final four to Northwestern, Michigan, Penn State and Marquette. Some teams tried to dazzle her with graphics and mailers; Northwestern focused its recruitment on building relationships and getting Brown to campus. It ended up being a strategy that worked better than the others.

A major factor in her decision was the ability to stay close to home, as her older sister Olivia was unable to be involved in her sisters’ recruitment after leaving for New York. With Evanston being a long but manageable three-to-four hour drive away from her hometown of Grand Rapids, attending Northwestern will allow her to stay in touch with Macy as she continues her recruiting process.

“I love Northwestern’s play style. The culture is so great. The academics are a whole ‘nother level,” said Brown when asked for additional reasons as to her commitment. “It felt like home.”

The team sees Brown as a chameleon of sorts, being able to adapt to any role they ask of her due to the combination of her height (5-foot-10) and shooting prowess (40% from three as a high school senior), according to Coach Popovec.

Off the court, Brown wants to pursue law, while getting involved in the community.

Melannie Daley

5-9 Guard

Hastings HS, NY

Offered 6/2019, committed 3/27/2020

While each member of the class is obviously excited to begin their careers as collegiate athletes for Northwestern, one has stood above the rest in her anticipation.

“No one is more excited to come to NU this summer than Mel Daley,” Popovec told Inside NU in a recent interview.

Daley is a basketball lover through and through and sports an explosive game that she pairs with a lethal mid-range jumper.

As far as recruitment goes, Daley was under-ranked, but she doesn’t let it get to her: “I’m not going to campus to be ranked.”

Her first college offer arrived when she was in eighth grade, and over time she amassed several more from the likes of VIllanova, Kansas State and Virginia Tech. Her family values academics highly, and knowing the strength of the academics at Northwestern, Daley’s father reached out to Popovec. Daley was too young at the time for the assistant coach to reply, but fortunately, Mel’s father included her coach’s email, and through Daley’s high school coach, Pop was able to arrange for Daley to tour campus the day before an elite camp in Evanston. Daley fell in love with the University on her visit almost immediately.

“Once I stepped onto campus I kind of knew,” said Daley. “I told everyone I knew that Northwestern is where I wanted to go.”

Northwestern clearly thought kindly about her after that first visit too, as Daley received an offer shortly after the camp.

Like many members of the incoming class, Daley based her decision on academics, athletics, and culture.

“I want to be a part of history,” Daley told Inside NU. At the camp, she noticed the ‘Cats joking, dancing and having a good time, and knew she wanted to be a part of that culture and unity.

“I felt different around them. The other schools were great, but something about Northwestern was different.”

Academically, Daley wants to pursue a degree in Biomedical Engineering with the goal of one day designing prosthetics for athletes.

Caileigh Walsh

ESPN: #56

6-4 Forward

Gill St. Bernard’s School, NJ

Committed 6/1/2020

Coaches Popovec and McKeown conducted a home visit with Caileigh Walsh in mid-March of 2020. Two days later, the world shut down. She still committed to Northwestern without ever stepping foot in Evanston. However, with a 6-foot-4 frame and a game that coach McKeown has described as, “a hybrid of Wolf and Scheid”, it’s no wonder that she found herself with over 35 offers to choose between. As if those 35 offers weren’t enough, she also had to balance singing in the honors choir, practicing her instruments (she plays both piano and violin) and academics all while adjusting to life in a pandemic.

After setting a goal to play D1 ball in fifth grade, Walsh worked hard to develop her game. Her effort paid off, and as early as the summer before her freshman year of high school, she had her first offer, amassing several more as she traveled to exposure events with her AAU teams. Northwestern was one of the later offers to roll in, arriving her junior year. This didn’t matter to the New Jersey native, though, as she narrowed down her final decision to both UCLA and the ‘Cats.

Ultimately, the standout differences between the two were the coaches and culture at Northwestern. Although she was unable to meet the team in-person, the prized recruit jumped on a Zoom call with Lindsey Pulliam and Abbie Wolf and left the call having a great appreciation for what Northwestern has built.

“A huge thing that I was looking for was a great balance of academics and athletics,” said Walsh.

Academically and athletically UCLA is relatively on par with Northwestern, but UCLA doesn’t have Kate Popovec, the primary recruiter of Walsh and the person who played a large part in landing the New Jersey native. Walsh also said that she has grown close with Northwestern Assistant Coach Tangela Smith.

On the court, Walsh prides herself on being able to play inside and out. She said that she wants to have an impact right away, and given the team’s struggles on the interior during the 2020-21 season, there’s a decent chance that she can slide into Northwestern’s rotation to start next season.

She plans to major in political science so that after she retires from the WNBA she can go to law school. If the Weaver, Walsh and Brown firm can defend a court case like they can on a basketball court, their opponents in the courtroom are in trouble.

Mercy Ademusayo

6-4 F/C

Linden Hall School For Girls, PA

Hometown: Ode Irele, Nigeria

Committed 9/12/2020

In terms of her game, Ademusayo fits the idea of a Northwestern recruit perfectly — under-recruited, hard-working, versatile skill set and elite defensive potential. With that said, the Nigerian native’s story of actually getting to the hardwood is fascinating. She moved to the United States at the age of 14 not speaking English and found a home with a caring host named Denise Murphy, who some may recognize as the mother of Northwestern’s Boo Buie.

After transitioning to the states and settling in New York, she was thrown into another new environment, enrolling in a boarding school in Pennsylvania, a five-hour drive from Murphy’s home in Albany, New York.

“It was a new environment where I didn’t know anyone. My first day of high school was really hard,” said Ademusayo. “I was homesick a lot, I couldn’t get used to the food.”

Unsurprisingly, she found her home on the court, with both Linden Hall and her AAU team.

Exposure at AAU games earned Ademusayo her first offer from St. Joseph’s University when she was in ninth grade. Other D1 schools such as Manhattan College, Pepperdine, Mississippi State and San Francisco State soon followed suit. But Ademusayo created her own opportunity. She worked with her guardian to research schools with strong sports psychology programs, her main academic interest. She identified Northwestern as an ideal candidate, and the two sent an email to Northwestern’s coaching staff.

Cold, out-of-nowhere emails are rarely successful as far as recruiting goes, but the mention of a 6-foot-4 post player caught Smith’s attention. She watched the film that Ademusayo had attached and was hooked. Coach McKeown watched the film and was reminded of an elite shot-blocker he coached at George Washington. They wanted Mercy Ademusayo, and Mercy Ademusayo wanted them.

Aside from an elite education, Northwestern’s culture attracted Ademusayo. Coming from a high school class that was composed of just 10 girls including herself, she wanted a small school with a ‘family-like team.” Northwestern certainly fits this mold, and the involvement of the coaching staff strengthens the camaraderie.

The coaching staff was a major factor in Mercy’s decision, specifically Tangela Smith. Ademusayo cited the former WNBA player as a huge draw, and she knows that Smith will be able to help her get the most out of her skill set. Though she has never been to Evanston, she said that she likes the campus, having taken the virtual tour and attended prospective student meetings over 10 times to foster a sense of the area and what it’s like to be a Wildcat.