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Northwestern women’s basketball post-mortem 2021-22: Ups, downs and a tourney snub

A look back at the rollercoaster that was the 2021-22 season

Photo by Amit Mallik

Sigh. Though hopes were dashed on Selection Sunday when the Northwestern women’s basketball team (17-12, 8-8 B1G) was not selected for the big dance, this year’s team deserves recognition for holding its own in one of the toughest conferences in the country amidst an ongoing pandemic. From Paradise Jam in the Bahamas to the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis, Joe McKeown’s squad grew immensely and fought hard through the final whistle each and every time it stepped on the court. In case you wanted to reminisce on the ups-and-downs of this past season, you’re in luck — here is our 2021-22 women’s basketball post-mortem:

November

The Wildcats began their season with a bang, going undefeated through their first three contests. Northwestern recorded double-digit wins over the University of Illinois, Chicago (where this happened), UC Santa Barbara and Loyola Chicago before facing its most difficult opponent yet in DePaul.

The contest at DePaul came down to the wire, but the ‘Cats eventually fell 78-75, marking their first loss of the season. Notably, though, the matchup was a coming out party of sorts for freshmen Jillian Brown and Mel Daley, both of whom recorded solid double-digit performances and combined for six assists. DePaul was also the last contest for senior Sydney Wood, stripping the ‘Cats of one of their key senior leaders and backcourt ball-handlers due to injury for the remainder of the season.

Next on the docket was the Paradise Jam in the Bahamas. McKeown and company spent their winter breaks enjoying the sun with a side of basketball, facing South Dakota, Pitt and then-No. 23 Texas A&M to round out the month of November.

Unfortunately, NU sustained losses to Pitt and TAMU on their trip. Though dropping to the Aggies was understandable, as they were Northwestern’s first ranked opponent of the year, the loss to Pitt did not bode well for the ‘Cats in the long run. The Panthers went on to finish 14th in the ACC, and the loss marked a disappointing gash in Northwestern’s record going forward.

Nonetheless, there was an abundance of positives that came out of the trip, including a 20-point performance from freshman Caileigh Walsh against South Dakota which solidified the fact that McKeown’s highly touted class of first-years was, in fact, legit.

December

December kicked things off with the ACC-B1G Challenge where Northwestern faced Clemson in South Carolina. Veronica Burton went ballistic in this contest, recording 32 of Northwestern’s 72 points along with five rebounds and four assists. Despite only one other player in Walsh hitting double-digits, Burton’s performance hoisted the ‘Cats to a much needed victory. Luckily, the wins would keep rolling in from there.

After their victory at Clemson, the ‘Cats won their next four contests in dominant fashion, including an 11-point dub versus Wisconsin in their first conference matchup of the season. Their other wins included victories over Delaware, Milwaukee and Temple, bringing NU’s record to 9-3 heading into the turn of the year.

The most anticipated matchup of December, though, was Northwestern’s solstice showdown against Oregon on the 21st. To both Wildcat and Ducks’ fans disappointment, the game was cancelled day-of due to positive COVID cases in the Northwestern program — a stark reminder of the ongoing pandemic that would see other conference teams affected in the future.

With their last non-conference matchup cancelled with no plans to reschedule and COVID cases still present in the program, Northwestern’s final matchup of the calendar year against Minnesota was postponed as well, and the ‘Cats finished the month of December with a perfect 5-0 record heading into the heat of conference play.

January

Only one more matchup (a scheduled bout against Michigan State) was postponed due to COVID before the ‘Cats were back in action on Jan. 6th against then-No. 22 Iowa in Iowa City. Northwestern’s first-ranked conference opponent of the season, the Hawkeyes rallied behind Caitlin Clark and Monika Czinano who combined for 50 points, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the ‘Cats.

Thanks to 25-point and 22-point performances from Burton and Daley respectively, along with stellar defense from Courtney Shaw to complement her 11 boards, Northwestern took down Iowa on its home court 77-69. It was an impressive win, and one that should have propelled the ‘Cats to more success in conference play. Unfortunately, that just was not the nature of the Big Ten this year, which lived up to its reputation as one of the most difficult conferences in the country.

Northwestern faced Ohio State next, where Jacy Sheldon put on a clinic and lifted the Buckeyes to victory. All hope was not lost, though, as the ‘Cats quickly rebounded with a five-point win over Rutgers just four days later. However, the victory was not enough to keep the ‘Cats afloat.

January is likely the month most Northwestern players want back. After the Rutgers win, the ‘Cats dropped two crucial conference matchups against beatable opponents Michigan State and Penn State. It was during this stretch where the loss of Sydney Wood began to hurt the ‘Cats and Burton lacked the support she needed to hoist the team to victory.

The Spartans held NU to a season-low 46 points in the Jan. 16th matchup, and the ‘Cats allowed 20 points to Makenna Marisa in their four point loss to the Nittany Lions. It only got more difficult from there with two ranked opponents rounding out the month, as Northwestern lost two more contests to then-No. 12 Maryland and their second matchup with then-No. 23 Iowa.

Maryland put on an offensive showing against the ‘Cats, scoring 87 points with 54 coming from beyond the arc. Next came Iowa yet again, but this loss hurt arguably the most out of all five of Northwestern’s losses on the month. A potentially game-winning layup by Laya Hartman was discounted after poor clock management confused the final seconds of the game, eventually sending the game to overtime where Iowa claimed victory.

All-in-all, January is likely the month that cost Northwestern a tournament bid. The losses to MSU and PSU were inexcusable in the long run, and another missed contest against Illinois, which would have been played on the 30th if not for COVID cases in the Illini program, was not rescheduled, limiting the number of wins in Northwestern’s record even further.

February

Ending the previous month on a four-game losing streak was not going to stop the ‘Cats from finding their way back to victory. Slowly but surely, McKeown figured out his best starting rotation which eventually put Shaw, Hartman, Brown and Lauryn Satterwhite by Burton’s side.

Northwestern began February by beating Purdue in dominant fashion in West Lafayette thanks to a 26-point performance by Burton and 13 rebounds from Shaw. They then avenged their loss to Penn State by heading to State College and earning a six-point win.

However, if January is the month Northwestern wants back, its Feb. 11th contest against Minnesota is the contest the team most wants back. A 74-68 loss in Minneapolis is not what the ‘Cats needed after regaining some steam in their previous two matchups, but thankfully, one of the biggest wins in program history was soon to come.

If there is one game every Wildcat fan will remember from the 2021-22 season, it’s Northwestern’s double-overtime victory against then-No. 4 Michigan at home. The 71-69 victory marked the program’s first win over an opponent ranked 4th or higher since 1982, and who better to seal the victory than Burton on two made free-throws at the end of the second overtime period. Additionally, the ‘Cats held Michigan star Naz Hillmon to just 16 points and only allowed two other Wolverines into double-digits while NU’s Brown led all scorers with 18 points and Burton notched a whopping 13 assists.

The victory was not enough to propel the ‘Cats to a win in their next matchup against then-No. 5 Indiana, who was simply too hot to handle, but Northwestern then went on to claim back-to-back victories against Illinois and Purdue before finishing up the regular season on a disappointing 14-point loss at Nebraska.

Northwestern finished the regular season at seventh in the conference standings on its way to Indianapolis and the Big Ten Tournament. The end of February saw Northwestern finish over .500 with a 16-11 record for the fourth season in a row, a testament to McKeown’s success at head coach in recent years as well as the impact of this year’s graduating class of Burton, Shaw, Satterwhite, Wood and Aussie baller Jess Sancataldo.

March

Heading into the Big Ten Tournament, Northwestern sat on the NCAA Tournament bubble and would likely need to win at least two tournament games to guarantee a bid to the big dance.

The ‘Cats’ first tournament matchup came against No. 10 seeded Minnesota in somewhat of a revenge game from Northwestern’s loss to the Gophers in February. Fortunately, it was Northwestern’s day as a late team effort spurred the ‘Cats to a 65-60 victory. A clutch three from Hartman in the game’s final minutes and a crucial block by Satterwhite on Minnesota’s sharp-shooting Sara Scalia with under 10 seconds to go sealed the deal and sent Northwestern to the second round, where they would meet the Clark and Iowa one final time.

The No. 2 seeded Hawkeyes came into the tournament red hot after their regular season ended with back-to-back wins against a ranked Indiana team, a win at Rutgers and a win versus No. 6 Michigan. Iowa was on a roll, and even though Northwestern pulled out all of the stops to half Clark and Czinano, it was not enough.

Despite a solid first half showing that saw NU down just one heading into the locker room, the ‘Cats lost 72-59 in what would be their season finale. Unfortunately they did not win the two conference tournament games they would have needed to most likely compete in the NCAA Tournament, and Northwestern’s season came to an end at Gainbridge Fieldhouse with a final record of 17-12, going 8-8 in conference play.