Both offenses in the first half of yesterday’s game between Northwestern and Michigan State were, to put it lightly, really, really bad.
The two squads combined to post a ghastly 43.9 true shooting percentage, were averaging right around 13 points per quarter and seemed completely stymied in everything that they tried to do.
However, things changed quickly in the second half for the home team in East Lansing. Michigan State came out of the break rolling and went on an immediate 9-0 run to push its lead to 36-25 early in the second half, and from that hole Northwestern struggled to ever climb out, eventually getting steamrolled in 65-46 road defeat.
So what was the switch that was flipped? Why did a defensive grudge match through the first 20 minutes turn into a fireworks show for one team once a new half was started?
Well if you watched the game, it unsurprisingly had a lot to do with Sparty’s Mathilde Ekh, the freshman guard who finished with 18 points, all of which came via the three-point line. In the first half, Ekh managed to connect on two triples, but didn’t do too much damage to NU with her spacing and accuracy.
She was often just standing above the arc like this quite often, waiting for a kick out or an open look to reveal itself from the blizzard.
Starting in the third quarter, Michigan State began to have Ekh roam the baseline from corner to corner, a plan that immediately found success on the first possession, as she was able to peel open for a baseline three and a late contest from Courtney Shaw was not enough to bother the sharpshooter. Keep your eye on her this whole possession as she starts in the left corner, cuts hard to the opposite side, before meandering back to the left corner without a single Wildcat noticing.
To be fair, that’s not the easiest shot in the world, but it how the shot came to be that matters more. None of the three Wildcat defenders nearest the baseline (Jillian Brown, Caileigh Walsh and Shaw) even notice the dangerous Ekh as they are so focused on the ball out top that she escapes their peripherals with her movement.
That’s because this motion within the offense is specifically designed away from Veronica Burton, who sits at the heart of the blizzard defense. Using Ekh in this way has it so that Burton isn’t eyeing her to properly communicate the switch, and given their setup she isn’t the one who will be closing out either.
After an empty trip for the ‘Cats on the offensive end of the floor, Michigan State returned the next time down and got an easy layup when Northwestern was too preoccupied by the ball entering the post and Ekh moving to the strong side corner, allowing Tamara Farquhar to cut right in front of Shaw’s face for the easy bucket.
While this is mainly just a breakdown from Shaw, it’s important to question what she might have been thinking as a result of the previous score from Ekh. She sees the shooter in her corner, turns to identify her and wants to stay close enough for a good closeout, only for the corner to clear out again behind her, and for her to be late to tag the cut from Farquhar.
Now trailing 32-25 and desperately in need of a stop to prevent the run from growing too large, Northwestern had finally seemed to learn from its mistakes, offering premature closeouts on Ekh, and avoiding an early breakdown in the play.
However, this came at the cost of Burton not doubling or digging down on the post as hard as she usually would in order to keep the team’s defensive assignments sound, giving Alisia Smith a one-on-one opportunity against Walsh in the post. The quicker Smith took advantage with a rip through and finish on the left side of the basket with zero defenders in purple being willing to help off of their own assignment toward the ball.
After this, Joe McKeown took a timeout to stop the bleeding, but the damage was done. Struggling to make any headway through 20 minutes of gameplay, the Spartans had completely busted open the action with this 7-0 run, and Northwestern lacked the offensive firepower needed to make up the ground quickly in any meaningful way.
Ekh would hit three more triples in the second half and after the timeout did not even remain in her position as baseline roamer, but she had already served her purpose. Her hitting that opening three and gravity as a movement shooter served to open up the pain for the MSU offense, and that combined with the inability of the ‘Cats to score on the other end was all Michigan State needed to pull off the upset at home in convincing fashion.