Niagara came into Evanston on Tuesday night, but it was Northwestern’s shots that continued to splash.
The Wildcats (3-2, 0-0 B1G) kicked off their Thanksgiving week with a trouncing of the Niagara Purple Eagles (1-3,0-0 MAAC), 76-38, putting Northwestern one game over .500.
Northwestern was led by Sydney Wood’s 19 points, seven rebounds, five steals and two blocks, while Courtney Shaw added a double-double with 17 points and 11 rebounds.
The ‘Cats controlled the ball off the tip, but an errant pass by Wood turned the ball over. It didn’t matter much, as the Purple Eagles gave it right back. Shaw put Northwestern on the board first with a tough finish around the rim to go up 2-0, then the Wildcats forced another steal and a full-court pass by Kaylah Rainey hit Shaw on the run to put Northwestern up four. Niagara would answer back, hitting two mid-range shots to cut the Wildcats’ lead to one. The ‘Cats would then find their groove and go on an 8-0 run to go up 12-4 before Niagara burned its first time out.
Both teams struggled to find the basket after the time-out. The Eagles employed a full-court press to try and contain the Wildcats, but the ‘Cats were able to move the ball up the court with ease. Wood hit back-to-back jumpers and a Paige Mott layup on a two-on-one pushed Northwestern’s lead to 15. The Purple Eagles got a pair from the line; however, the ‘Cats’ defense stifled the Niagara offense. Northwestern ended the first quarter up 20-7, the least amount of points the ‘Cats had given up in a single quarter all season. The Wildcats also forced seven turnovers.
The impressive defensive effort by Northwestern continued into the second quarter. On Niagara’s first two possessions of the period, Shaw swatted a layup attempt by Maddy Yelle, and Melannie Daley drew a charge. On the other side of the court, the ‘Cats struggled to protect the basketball. The Wildcats had the same number of points as turnovers three minutes into quarter two until an and-one by Jillian Brown dropped to try to put Northwestern back on track. It was to no avail, as less than two minutes later, the Wildcats turned the ball over on three straight possessions, to the visual dismay of coach Joe McKeown. Northwestern led 29-14 at the media timeout midway through the quarter.
The timeout did not fix Northwestern’s turnover woes, as the ‘Cats turned it over on their first possession out of the break, and nearly had it taken away on their ensuing possession. Wood tried to spark her team, but could not find her shot from outside the three-point line; instead, Shaw and Caileigh Walsh dominated the game from inside the paint. Shaw worked her way through the paint to lay one in, and later finished through contact to complete an and-one to put Northwestern up 38-16 at the half.
Neither team could hold on to the basketball, combining for 24 turnovers in the first half, while the ‘Cats had nine turnovers in the second quarter alone. The difference in the first half was on the inside, as the ‘Cats had 30 rebounds and 24 points in the paint, compared to Niagara’s 13 boards and a mere four points inside the key.
The teams came out of the locker room with renewed physicality. There were six fouls in the opening 90 seconds of the third period, and Niagara accounted for five of them, putting Northwestern in the bonus for the remaining eight minutes of the quarter. Brown nailed a three from the wing to expand the Wildcats 8-1 run to start the quarter, before Niagara called a timeout to stop the bleeding, with the ‘Cats leading 46-17.
Out of the timeout, Walsh immediately picked up her third foul that ended the ‘Cats run and started an Eagles mini-run. Nickelle O’Neil banked in a three, and a bad pass by Walsh allowed for an easy Niagara layup to cut Northwestern’s lead to 24. The Wildcats turned the tide back in their favor, going on a 6-2 run to push the lead to almost 30 at the media timeout with four minutes left to play.
Shaw added another and-one out of the break, giving Northwestern its first 30-point lead of the season. Later in the third, Shaw missed a contested layup, but grabbed her own miss twice and finished at the rim. Paige Mott worked an up and under late in the quarter to the excitement of the Wildcats bench, and a layup by Wood put the ‘Cats up 65-27. A buzzer beater three by Niagara’s Sydney Faulcon cut the Northwestern lead to 35 at the end of three. The ‘Cats did a much better job taking care of the basketball, losing only three turnovers in the quarter.
Although the game was out of reach, the Purple Eagles continued to put pressure on the ‘Cats. The Eagles started the quarter in a full-court press and forced two quick Northwestern turnovers. Niagara went on a 9-2 run to cut into the insurmountable Wildcat lead, but the deficit was too large and it mattered not. Niagara could not do anything else to dig out of the hole, scoring one point in the final four minutes, and the ‘Cats were victorious, 76-38.
Northwestern will be back in action against Valparaiso University at Welsh-Ryan Arena Sunday at 2 p.m. CST.