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Northwestern’s triumphant return to the court a sign of what’s possible for the Wildcats

After 19 days on pause, the ‘Cats looked as sharp as they have all season on Thursday night.

The end of 2021 was not kind to the Northwestern Wildcats.

On December 21 of the year just past, they woke up to the news that, instead of taking on Oregon in a highly-promoted home test as they had planned, they’d instead enter team COVID-19 protocols after several positive tests within the program. The pause that ensued would last 19 days, carrying over into 2022 and postponing an additional two contests in the process.

Hell, even before the COVID outbreak that left numerous ‘Cats sick, 2021 wasn’t coming to the close the team had wished for. After making the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015, the ‘Cats had started off this year’s campaign 9-3, dropping a winnable contest just a short drive south at DePaul before falling in two of three contests — including one against a Pitt team without some of its top scorers — at the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands. So again, the end of 2021 was not kind to the Northwestern Wildcats.

2022, however, looks to be off to a much better start for head coach Joe McKeown’s team. In upsetting the No. 22 Iowa Hawkeyes on the road, NU displayed a level of offensive prowess on Thursday it had failed to at any point in the season before its COVID-induced pause, even in the wake of concerns about rust.

“We’ve had very limited practice, obviously” said McKeown after the 77-69 victory. “Just getting back to campus, too. A lot going on. I wasn’t sure how we were gonna respond, to be honest.”

Of course, those concerns were justified, especially for a team that had shot a combined 32.8 percent from the field in its last two games before the unexpected break. But the presence of one player in particular made it easier for McKeown to sleep at night ahead of NU’s Big Ten slate opener, its first matchup with a Power Five side in over a month.

“When you’ve got Veronica Burton on your team, she’s not gonna let anybody have a letdown, as far as energy and attitude about playing goes,” he said.

The Backcourt Burglar lived up to her nickname in Iowa City, snatching an eye-popping eight steals while leading the team offensively with 25 points. She added six rebounds and six assists, making the night one to remember, even amidst a career that has seen plenty of such performances.

She wasn’t alone in having a standout game, though. Alongside her at guard, true first-year Melannie Daley cashed in on nine of her 16 shooting attempts for 22 points, the most of her young college career.

“The way Iowa played her defensively, she got hot early and she just got a lot of confidence going.” McKeown said of Daley.

“She’s a dynamic scorer,” he continued. “We see it in practice every day. She can score against anybody, so it was just good to see her not be afraid to shoot the ball.”

Collectively, the NU backcourt was able to overshadow a strong showing from the most well-known player on the court nationally, Iowa guard Caitlin Clark. The sophomore put up 30 points aided by 13-for-13 shooting at the free throw line, but was held to just three points in the final quarter of play.

After downing Clark, the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year, for the third time in three attempts, the Wildcats now look to the rest of Big Ten play, where it appears the sky is the limit. They won’t face another currently-ranked opponent in their next four games, giving them the opportunity to build up a head of steam before they take on No. 10 Maryland and this same Iowa team in just over two weeks. Of course, with both feet now in the Big Ten season, they’ll get no reprieve from matchups against Power Five opponents, who they’ve gone 3-2 against to this point.

For McKeown, though, Thursday’s victory indicates that the team is ready for what’s next.

“Over the years, this has been a tough place to win, not just for us, but for the Big Ten. So we’ll take this one and go back to Chicago,” he said.

With as wide of a grin as you’ll ever see him with, he closed out his presser.

“It’s grind time in the Big Ten.”