Without a doubt, when reviewing the box score of Northwestern’s 73-59 loss at Nebraska on the closing day of the Big Ten regular season, one particular stat stands out. The Cornhuskers shot an uncanny 50 percent from three-point range, and did the same on their two-point attempts, resulting in a clean 50 percent mark from the field.
While Amy Williams’ team certainly exploited NU’s blizzard defense and the full and three-quarter court pressures Joe McKeown employed on Sunday to create a number of open looks from behind the arc, the truth is that UNL was simply shooting the ball incredibly well. For reference, the Huskers have shot just 42.2 percent from the field and 33 percent from three on the season, the seventh best such figure in the conference and a full three percentage points behind the ‘Cats. Sure, the Wildcats could’ve shored up the defensive front on a few possessions here and there, but when your opponents — who are not particularly known for their long-range effectiveness — are knocking down half of their three-point attempts (contested or otherwise), you’re typically not going to fight that fire with more substantial defensive pressure.
As such, as Northwestern’s focus shifts to the Big Ten Tournament, where it will likely have to knock off both a Minnesota team that has already defeated it and an Iowa squad that just clinched a share of the conference title to have a chance at the NCAA Tournament, my attention shifts — as it has at various points this season — back to its offense and the vulnerabilities within.
Everyone who follows this Wildcats team is aware that Veronica Burton is its leader on both ends of the court. On the defensive side of things, she’s an undeniable force that disrupts opponents with turnover-forcing agility and physical, yet smart on-ball coverage. Offensively, she’s a decent shooter, can make players miss with her cuts to the rim and can facilitate at a high-level through passing, too.
But Burton can’t do it alone, best she might try. At the end of the day, she is but a single (very good) point guard, and while she’s played a key role in NU’s late season resurgence that has seen the ‘Cats rejoin the bubble conversation, it has ultimately been the improvement of pieces around her that has yielded the majority of the Wildcats’ improvement as a whole.
Outside of Burton, three players — Jillian Brown, Lauryn Satterwhite and Courtney Shaw — have emerged down the stretch to make Northwestern’s offensive attack more multi-dimensional. Brown and Satterwhite have provided strong alternative shooting options that have forced defenders to be honest with their coverage of Burton. Shaw, the team’s most established big, has been reliable on shots near the rim, which, in turn, has opened up space down low for Burton to be more effective. Ever since the Wildcats’ upset of Michigan, it’s been impossible not to notice the enhanced contributions of at least one of these three each time they have played — even in the team’s losses. Or at least it was impossible until the ‘Cats took on UNL.
On Sunday, Shaw got into foul trouble early and often, limiting her floor time to 22 minutes in which she went 0-for-3 from the floor. Satterwhite and Brown, after starting relatively hot in the first quarter with six combined points on 2-for-5 shooting, went a dismal 0-for-9 from the field the rest of the way. Burton received most of her help against the Huskers from Laya Hartman, the fifth member of NU’s regular starting rotation, who went 4-for-4 shooting in the first half with 10 points. But even she suffered a let down the second half, failing to convert on any of her three attempts in the final 20 minutes of action.
Put the supporting cast’s subpar efforts together, and Burton was left with a tall task against a team that had dropped only a single game at home all season. Yes, the Huskers’ shooting was elite, but it likely wouldn’t have mattered if they had been ever so slightly worse on the offensive end, as Northwestern’s lack of effective options in its starting lineup left it unable to keep up with even pedestrian opposition scoring at points.
This, ultimately, is why the team will not go as far as Burton takes them, but, rather, as far as the pieces around her will allow. Burton is an elite talent and one of the brightest stars in program history, but if she is forced to face teams five-on-one, even she is unlikely to beat the odds and pull out victories against top-tier opponents. If Northwestern is to make a run in the upcoming conference tournament — one which would give them a chance at the Big Dance — it will need to return to its more multi-faceted offensive approach, and that will require stronger showings from the rest of the starters.