To wrap up a piece on Northwestern’s 81-48 blowout loss at the hands of Ohio State on Dec. 28, I noted that if the ‘Cats couldn’t fix their mistakes in early conference play, “the transitional year will become just that.” With a rematch against those No. 3 Buckeyes just five days away, an 0-7 Big Ten start has turned the program’s transition from the Veronica Burton era into a long, cold winter.
Not much changed in Northwestern’s 65-54 defeat to Purdue, a loss that extended NU’s losing streak to six games. Joe McKeown’s squad struggled to establish a consistent rhythm early, turning the ball over 16 times in the first half alone. The Boilermakers’ persistent press both slowed the ‘Cats down on offense and forced bad passes whenever the pace got quicker. That’s been the case all year for Northwestern, whose 17.8 turnovers per game average is the second-highest mark in the Big Ten behind Rutgers.
“Sometimes we got a little out of control trying to get to the rim and lost the ball, sometimes we tried to make an extra pass instead of shooting the ball,” McKeown said. “They came in all different ways, but we’ve got to be a much better ball control team. If we can do that and get the ball inside, I think we can beat a lot of people in the Big Ten.”
Even when the Wildcats found lanes to the basket, they had a tough time finishing around the rim. Purdue’s interior defense was very good, but not to the extent where making just 11 of 22 layups (along with a few more contested paint misses) should have been expected.
That’s not to say the ‘Cats didn’t have fight. Down double digits in the second quarter, Northwestern closed out the first half with an 11-0 run, which helped them gain a lead early in the next period. Great three-point shooting from Caileigh Walsh and Kaylah Rainey, who dropped a career-high 14 points, proved to be a huge reason why NU found itself in contention to win early in the fourth quarter.
Another change from NU’s past three games was its team defense, as it held Katie Gearlds’ team to under 40% from the field. Unlike Iowa, Indiana and Illinois, Purdue couldn’t establish a balanced scoring attack against the ‘Cats. Only one Boilermaker scored over 15 points: Abbey Ellis, who scored 24.
Yet in the third quarter, it was Ellis who was able to almost single-handedly retake control of a game that appeared to be a Wildcat comeback with her ability to get to the basket. That wasn’t the only way Purdue dominated inside; it outrebounded Northwestern on the offensive glass 14-4. As the ‘Cats know from their loss to the Buckeyes two weeks ago, it’s not going to get any easier on Thursday night.
“It’s gonna be really important to just key in and buy into Ohio State because they have a lot more shooters than Purdue has as well, and they’re very aggressive on defense,” Rainey said. “We have to take care of the ball — me included, because I know I didn’t take care of the ball as well as I should have. I just know that as a team collectively, we need to match their energy or beat their energy to start off the game and end the game.”
Like its loss against Illinois — another rematch coming up next week — Northwestern went down big early and displayed remarkable effort coming back, but couldn’t ride the momentum to a victory. With the talent disadvantage the ‘Cats face against most of their Big Ten opponents, those opportunities haven’t come often. That made beating Purdue, a team that didn’t capitalize on the giveaways, rough interior defense and poor defensive rebounding that have plagued Northwestern all year, even more important.
As McKeown noted, the Wildcats did hang around with Ohio State early during their Dec. 28 clash. He also added that Northwestern has tended to play great February basketball in recent years.
But the cold reality is this: Northwestern lost that game by 33 points, and it hasn’t shown it is capable of dictating a game for four quarters against a superior opponent. While the schedule will get easier, a first-quarter hole as deep as this one makes it remarkably difficult for a second or third quarter run to mean much. Even if its record eventually says otherwise — like its third-quarter lead did on Saturday — NU will have to swim against the current in some very deep and freezing waters.