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Northwestern finally played like the team it wants to be

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Sunday’s win over Penn State played out just how the Wildcats wanted it to.

The broadcast crew started yesterday’s contest between Northwestern and Penn State with a refrain that’s been common to any Wildcat fan throughout this season.

“Here we go, and Penn State starts in a 2-3 zone defense.”

Every. Single. Game. No matter who it is or which venue Joe McKeown’s squad is playing at, the team playing Northwestern opens up in a 2-3.

It’s no secret as to why. Northwestern is a team led by a superstar guard who excels at driving to the rim, but also lacks the necessary shooting behind her to open up the floor in a halfcourt offense. Thus, defenses are content to sit back in a zone and dare the ‘Cats to beat them from deep with a barrage of threes, and for the most part Northwestern has been without an answer. Sure, the occasional hot stretch from Veronica Burton could bolster the offense, as well as a steal and push into transition, but the reason teams keep spamming the 2-3 when they face NU is that it works.

That is, until yesterday.

In a 78-72 come-from-behind victory against Penn State on Sunday afternoon, Northwestern was nothing short of magnificent from behind the arc, cashing in 10-of-21 threes, the team’s most successful shooting performance of the season in both volume and accuracy. A team that had shot a mere 30.1% on triples through 20 games of the 2021-22 season managed to connect on nearly half of their threes during yesterday’s game.

Additionally, the ice cold three-point shooting wasn’t the only facet of Northwestern that a took a turn for the better at State College. Whereas every previous game recap seems to reiterate that Burton had a fantastic performance in spite of the rest of her team’s struggles, the senior star had plenty of help from her fellow Wildcats on Sunday. Not one, not two, not even three but FOUR other Northwestern players managed to hit the double-digit mark in points.

Laya Hartman and Lauryn Satterwhite continued to justify their insertion into the starting lineup by contributing three triples apiece, five of which came during the second half as Northwestern stormed back from down sizeable deficits on several occasions. Jillian Brown, who has had a rough freshman season filled with a lot of missed shots and learning experiences, stepped up big time with a 10-point performance and pristine free throw shooting. Additionally, while the others spurred the second half surge, it was Melannie Daley who kept the ‘Cats alive during a brutal first half, connecting on all five of her attempts in the first two quarters, with several of them being her now trademark baseline jumpers.

Watching Northwestern during the previous four-game losing streak felt like watching someone ram their head against a concrete ceiling over and over again. Everyone knew the problems the team had — the lack of shooting, the lack of support surrounding Burton — but nothing was working. Still, the team held faith that they’d eventually break through.

“We’ve got to knock down those shots because I think we are very capable of hitting them,” said Burton, not after today’s game or any other win, but after one of the team’s worse losses of the season, getting dominated by Ohio State on their home court. Even then, the senior guard never wavered in the message she’s told the media after almost every game, saying, “I don’t think we’ve shown all the potential that we have, but I think we will eventually.”

Now there’s no guarantee that this new-look Northwestern is here to stay. It very well could have just been a great time for some shooting regression that hit at all the right times in Happy Valley. Heck, Northwestern was down seven entering the fourth, and Burton was clearly toughing it out at less than 100% on a bum ankle. It really looked like they were going to lose.

But they didn’t. Through it all, they finally showed that potential they’ve been talking about all season. Northwestern finally looked like the team they’ve said they are for months.

That’s why it’s hard to quit this team. Sometimes they go through scoring droughts that are painful to the average viewer. They still need quite a few more wins if they want to qualify for the NCAA Tournament for the third year in a row, and the Big Ten is a conference tough enough that nothing is guaranteed.

But Northwestern’s women’s basketball team pulls you back in because with their backs against the wall, they find a way to deliver. It happened several times two years ago during the 2019-20 dream season, with several late comebacks and clutch performances. Last season saw the ‘Cats upset their boogie man in Michigan in the Big Ten tournament before winning the program’s first NCAA Tournament game since 1993.

And this year, even with what is probably the weakest squad Joe McKeown has coached in the past three seasons, they went on the road and pulled out a must-win game with their superstar battling through a late-game injury.

Only time will tell if this was just a blip amidst a rough patch or a true sign of things to come, but regardless of future performance, it was satisfying to finally see Northwestern put on the show they’ve been promising for so long.