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First-years come up big in Northwestern’s tight win over Rutgers

Melannie Daley’s eight fourth quarter points proved crucial.

At the end of the third quarter in Northwestern’s win over Rutgers last night, first-year Melannie Daley was 0-for-5 from the field.

Oddly enough, her poor shooting hadn’t had too much of an impact on the game. Sure, she ended the first quarter shooting 0-for-4 and her missed shots did play a role in the Wildcats’ 11-10 deficit, but she had a plus/minus of +3 through the first 30 minutes of action. On top of that, the ‘Cats led by seven at the end of the third, and had even led by as much as 15 before that point.

Then came the fourth quarter, where Daley decided to be NU’s saving grace. The guard scored eight points and shot 4-for-4 from the field, accounting for Northwestern’s only points from the field in the final 10 minutes of play. The other seven points came from the free throw line.

“I think today you could just see a difference in her body language and her attitude. She was ready the next play,” senior guard Veronica Burton said on Dalye. “I think that’s a huge growth step for her, honestly, to not let her previous shots get in her head and stuff like that. She really helped us in the end down the stretch.”

Daley wasn’t the only first-year to have a significant impact in the win, however. Caileigh Walsh, who has started in nearly every game this season, finished the game with 13 points on 4-for-9 shooting. In fact, she played a large role in the ‘Cats not throwing away their lead entirely. In the third quarter, Walsh scored eight of her 13 points and hit two big threes to keep Northwestern up by multiple possessions.

By the end of the game, Daley and Walsh had combined for 17 second half points. The rest of the team combined for 19.

“They are handling a lot. I think they are now getting more comfortable each game,” head coach Joe McKeown said regarding the first-years. “Those freshmen make me laugh every day, they make me cry some days.”

This isn’t the first time the first-years have shown up and helped secure a victory for the Wildcats. They’ve been around all season long. It had been known, since the beginning of the year, that Daley, Walsh and Jillian Brown would be expected to contribute with the departure of Lindsay Pulliam. An injury to Sydney Wood in the fourth game of the campaign only amplified that. All three have stepped up and then some.

While Brown was quiet against the Scarlet Knights — she got into foul trouble early and finished with just two points — she’s averaging just above seven points per game, good enough for fifth best on the team. Walsh, who has started every game this season, is currently averaging a team second-best 9.9 points per game. Daley, meanwhile, has started in seven of 15 games this year, and is putting up eight points per game. With these numbers in mind, it’s difficult to imagine where the Wildcats would be without the play of their 2021 recruits.

As the season continues onward, Northwestern finds itself in a good spot and is likely to finish above .500 in Big Ten play. If that ends up being the case, there’s a good shot the ‘Cats will find themselves back in March Madness for the second straight season (third, if you include the 2019-20 year that was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic). While there’s still plenty to fix up as the season progresses, Daley, Walsh and Brown will play a big part in determining where the ‘Cats finish this year.

“We’ve got to get off to better starts,” McKeown said on how his team can improve. “We’re still young, we’ve got to get some early buckets, I think that will help us.”