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Confidence, team play key in the Wildcats’ season-defining victory over No. 4 Michigan

Joe McKeown’s pieces finally clicked into place, and the result was nothing short of historic.

Photo by Amit Mallik.

Before Sunday afternoon, no Northwestern women’s basketball team since 1982 had beaten an opponent ranked 4th or higher. That all changed when Veronica Burton was fouled with three seconds remaining in the second overtime period against No. 4 Michigan, sending her to the stripe with a chance to make history.

“It was time to put it away,” Burton said in the postgame press conference. “My confidence was at an all-time high. I knew the game was over as soon as I was going to the line.”

And she was right. The Massachusetts native nailed both of her free throws, earning Northwestern a hard-fought 71-69 victory over the Big Ten’s best.

But Burton’s late-game efforts don’t tell the whole story. Though the senior didn’t even score her first points until the beginning of the fourth quarter, her additions in other stat categories were invaluable. She notched a career-high 13 assists on Sunday, solidifying her second double-double of the season and showing, once again, that she is just as important as a distributor as she is a shooter. Additionally, eight of her 13 points — all of which were essential to Northwestern’s two-point victory — came from the free-throw line.

Head Coach Joe McKeown’s postgame praises ring true: “When you have a Burton, no matter what game you’re playing, you’ve got a chance to win.”

Though Burton’s contributions were indispensable, what transpired at Welsh-Ryan on Sunday was truly an all-around team effort. The Wildcats only recorded 13 turnovers compared to Michigan’s 21, and four players, all starters, achieved double-digit performances — something that seemed inconceivable against a foe this fierce just a few weeks ago.

First-year Jillian Brown is one of the main reasons the Wildcats’ offensive production has increased over the past few weeks. Though she didn’t have much success in the first half of conference play, the Michigan native has scored an average of just under 15 points in her last three appearances, and she led all scorers with a career-high 18 points on Sunday.

Aside from her scoring contributions against her home-state team, Brown played hard on both ends of the court, grabbing eight rebounds and three steals along with two blocks. The first-year’s off-ball defense also played a major part in helping her teammates shut down the Wolverines’ star Naz Hillmon, who Northwestern held to just 16 points — her lowest-scoring performance in her last seven games.

Veteran Courtney Shaw took the brunt of the job of covering Hillmon, though first-year Caileigh Walsh and sophomore Paige Mott rotated in intermittently to help out as well. Nonetheless, Shaw notched one of her best performances of the season so far, collecting nine rebounds and putting up 16 points all while muscling up to Hillmon and limiting her ability to influence the game.

“I think Courtney Shaw is one of the most overlooked players in the Big Ten,” Burton said about her teammate. “Her willingness to sacrifice her body on the defensive end and the fact that she doesn’t really care if she scores or not just shows her character. We are not in this game without her.”

Shaw’s maturity is what allowed her to play the full duration of the double-overtime period while sitting on four fouls. A fifth infraction would have benched her for the remainder of the contest, limiting the team’s ability to contain Hillmon. As such, her ability to avoid fouling out in crunch time was no small feat.

In addition to Burton, Brown and Shaw, Laya Hartman and Lauryn Satterwhite found ways to up Northwestern’s winning chances through their own strengths.

Hartman has been one of the Wildcats' best scorers all year, and it’s a welcome sight to finally see her cemented in McKeown’s starting five. A team-leading 41.5% three-point shooter, Hartman knocked down two crucial shots from behind the arc on Sunday, contributing to her fourth double-digit performance in her last five games.

Satterwhite’s stat-line might not show it, but her scrappy play and energy consistently encouraged her teammates to dig deep and follow her lead. The graduate student played almost 40 minutes against the Wolverines and did not let up once, showing her spot in the starting rotation was well-deserved.

While it came a little bit later than most Wildcat fans would have hoped, it looks as though McKeown has honed in on a winning recipe. With March looming, what matters the most, however, is his players carry this momentum into the final few matchups of the regular season slate and take the fight to Indianapolis, where they’ll hope to make a splash in the Big Ten Tournament.

“I feel like we’ve had pieces clicking at different times, but today everybody was on in their own different ways,” Brown said in the postgame press conference. “When we play like this, we can beat anybody.”