Northwestern’s only losses on the season had come to ranked opponents. Its only wins were to non-Power Five teams.
Northwestern hoped that Duke might fall somewhere in between the extremes of that spectrum, but Thursday’s loss was about as bad as any Northwestern had experienced so far this year.
Fresh off a 34-point victory against Valparaiso on Sunday, Northwestern (4-3, 0-0 B1G) was optimistic it might take down a tough Duke (6-1, 0-0 ACC) team at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Instead, its first away game in almost a month was one the team will want back, as the Wildcats fell, 66-50.
For Duke, Ashlon Jackson paved the way with 10 points, while Celeste Taylor and Elizabeth Balogun, both coming off the bench, added seven and eight, respectively, for the Blue Devils. The team thrived in converting off Northwestern turnovers, grabbing boards, and knocking down their free throws. The same couldn’t be said for the ‘Cats. Three players, Caileigh Walsh, Paige Mott and Sydney Wood, broke the double digit threshold for points, tallying 13, 13 and 11, respectively, but the rest of the team failed to contribute meaningful buckets. Ten first-half turnovers put the ‘Cats on the ropes early.
Northwestern opened the game with pace and effort. Sydney Wood, Mott and Walsh all nabbed offensive rebounds, but bad passes and missed shots led to just one made basket. Jillian Brown also grabbed a steal, but she couldn’t convert in transition.
Both teams started cold, scoring five points combined in the first four minutes. The ‘Cats chucked up two unsuccessful threes before Wood finally nailed one. The Blue Devils took three shots from behind the arc in the game’s first five minutes, missing on all of their attempts. Duke was hitting on just 21% of its three pointers heading into the contest.
The back half of the quarter was one of contrast.
In the latter end of the period, NU turned the ball over five times, while Duke didn’t commit a single turnover in the last five minutes of the first. The Devils’ full-court press and smothering paint presence forced NU into some bad choices.
While the Wildcats continued to turn the ball over, Duke capitalized on its chances. Back-to-back baseline jumpers, an inbound steal and a deep shot from Lee Volker helped the Blue Devils go on an 11-0 run late in the first.
The start of the second quarter was more of the same. A Kaylah Rainey turnover turned into fastbreak points for Duke. Coming back down the court, Walsh was called for a three-second violation. In all, NU’s first-half turnovers cost them eight points.
It felt like the back of the rim was Northwestern’s best friend for much of the first half. Laya Hartman was one of many on NU’s roster to fall victim to too strong of a shot. Hartman then missed two straight free throws, both rattling off the back end of the bucket.
On the other end of the court, Jackson was fouled by Hartman on a three-point shot. Jackson hit two-of-three.
Walsh broke a nine-minute scoring drought for the Wildcats, finally converting on a layup.
The most disappointing part of the first half for Joe McKeown’s squad had to be their inability to hit shots beyond the arc. You’d think an opponent starting 1-of-7 on deep shots, as Duke did, would be a promising sign. That wasn’t the case for NU, who shot an even worse clip, missing nine of its first 10 threes.
Prior to playing the Blue Devils, Northwestern’s lowest scoring first half of the season was against Oregon, when the ‘Cats dropped 27. They smashed that first-half record against Duke, scoring just 12 — six points in the first quarter and six points in the second. Meanwhile, Duke had scored 32 after the first 20 minutes.
Heading into the second half, McKeown looked to make adjustments in all departments. The ‘Cats needed to take less threes after shooting just 10% from three-point land in the first two quarters, and finishing at the basket had to be a priority too. NU missed 17 two-point field goals in the first half, many of which were right under the basket.
The Blue Devils left the slightest crack open for the Wildcats to start the third quarter. Duke missed its first four shots of the period, but Northwestern took little advantage, scoring only four points in the half’s first 6:41.
One of the few redeeming qualities of NU’s play through most of the game was offensive boards. They out-rebounded Duke on offense 12-to-5 through the midway point in the third.
The Devils didn’t let up with their fiery press in the second half — for good reason, too. NU struggled to inbound with so many defenders floating the width of the court, evidenced by a Jordyn Oliver steal off Courtney Shaw’s baseline pass. Mott was the next ‘Cat to make an errant pass on the inbound.
A 13-1 Duke run midway through the third quarter pushed Northwestern from an arm’s length away to a what felt like a mile’s length away.
Blue Devils head coach Kara Lawson utilized a rotating lineup toward the end of the quarter, subbing in Taylor, Balogun and Reigan Richardson to give some of her starters a rest. Against backups, NU was a little more efficient.
Mott finished on a tough layup, Caroline Lau took care of business at the charity stripe and Walsh swished a three to narrow the deficit to 23.
Northwestern was able to narrow the margin with Duke’s backups in, generating lots of Blue Devil turnovers in the final period. Still, the ‘Cats never threatened their opponent’s lead, and the game went in the books as a double-digit loss.
Duke had played good basketball in their first seven games against teams better than Northwestern, and it didn’t let up on Thursday. The team from Durham smothered the ‘Cats with their press defense and forced 17 turnovers, 10 of which came in the first two periods. The Devils knocked down 73% of their free throws, and added 46 total rebounds on the day.
NU’s inability to put together a run, highlighted by a nine-minute scoring drought that spanned across the first and second quarter, kept them out of the game. The choice to shoot 21 threes when practically none were hitting for the majority of the game also made things difficult for the ‘Cats. Now, having lost every game they’ve played to a Power Five opponent, Joe McKeown and his squad have to be nervous as they look ahead to a more daunting slate of competition.
The Wildcats will hope for better luck on Sunday when they travel to Ann Arbor, Mich. to take on Michigan at 1 p.m. CT.