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Rapid Reaction: Northwestern falls to Michigan State in tight 71-64 contest

Two teams moving in opposite directions clashed Monday night, and the result was as expected.

Photo by SJ_Carrera_Inc.

The new year did not lead to a change in trends.

The Northwestern Wildcats (6-7, 0-3 B1G) welcomed Michigan State (10-5, 2-2 B1G) to Welsh-Ryan Arena Monday night, and the game only reinforced the last few weeks for both teams. Michigan State extended its winning streak to four games in the 71-64 win, while Northwestern marked its third straight loss to Big Ten competition.

Matilda Ekh was the leader of the pack for Michigan State’s high-powered offense, scoring 21 points and adding four assists. Taiyier Parks dominated the Wildcats inside, scoring 17 points and adding six rebounds. The Spartans were also superb from beyond the arc, going 10-of-21 for the game. Michigan State also grabbed 40 rebounds, including 12 off the offensive glass.

The leaders for Northwestern were Sydney Wood and Jasmine McWilliams. Wood scored 12 points and added nine rebounds, while McWilliams pounded the paint en route to 10 points and three rebounds. The Wildcats shot well from the charity stripe, garnering a mark of 17-of-21, but couldn’t find the shots from long range, shooting just 3-of-18 from three-point land.

McWilliams opened up the scoring with a tough layup, and looking for shots inside quickly became a trend. The Wildcats’ first five shots were all from inside the paint, and they rode that wave to an 8-4 lead. Another key in building that lead was stifling defense that held the Spartans scoreless for over three minutes.

Following the media timeout, Wood hit a three-pointer to extend the lead to seven, but Michigan State’s Parks responded by scoring three consecutive points of her own. Northwestern, however, continued to attack the paint, and forced a Spartan timeout after a McWilliams layup made the score 15-7.

The offensive fireworks continued to close the opening frame, but Northwestern was the far more successful outfit in that endeavor. The ‘Cats hit 4-of-5 in the final four minutes to reach 20 points, but a 5-0 run from Michigan State to close the quarter made the score 20-15 after one quarter. The biggest reason for the Northwestern lead: efficient shooting. The Wildcats shot 69% from the field in the first quarter, compared to just 32% for the Spartans.

However, Michigan State was building a run, and that run crested when an Ekh three-pointer tied the game at 20. Luckily for Northwestern, Wood quickly responded with an and-one floater. The Spartans would not go quietly, though, and another long bomb from Ekh knotted things up at 23.

Northwestern’s offense looked like a Katy Perry song in the first half: hot in the first quarter, but cold in the second. Only after Paige Mott was able to put home a tipped offensive rebound did the Wildcats break a near 3-minute scoring drought. However, the ‘Cats weren't able to keep that momentum, and Ekh’s third downtown shot of the quarter gave Michigan State a 28-25 lead at the media timeout.

Ekh’s blazing streak from beyond the arc could not be stopped, and her fourth three-pointer gave Michigan State a 35-27 lead, capping a 7-0 run. That run was ended by a Kaylah Rainey free throw, but Northwestern’s hot shooting from the field that marked the first quarter was nowhere to be found. When Moira Joiner hit Michigan State’s sixth three pointer of the half, the lead was stretched to 40-28.

A Wood layup broke a near four-minute field goal drought for the ‘Cats, but a Mott layup near the buzzer couldn’t match yet another triple from Ekh. When the smoke cleared from the hardwood at Welsh-Ryan Arena, Michigan State led, 43-32.

The Spartans had an incredible quarter from beyond the arc, shooting 6-of-9 from distance in the frame. Ekh alone had five of those makes and 17 of the Spartans’ points, and the hot shooting continued at the charity stripe, where Michigan State hit all six of their attempts. The Spartans also out-rebounded Northwestern 15-to-nine in the second quarter. Wood and Mott tied for the Wildcat lead with eight points apiece in the half, but the offense fell off a cliff in the second quarter, shooting 5-of-19 in total.

McWilliams went on the attack early in the third quarter, converting an and-one layup that brought the lead back to single digits. Northwestern had a chance to cut further into the lead after a few Spartan giveaways, but a turnover followed by a Parks putback pushed the lead back to 11. Even worse, after the McWilliams free throw, Northwestern went over three and a half minutes without scoring.

After Caileigh Walsh broke that particular drought, Northwestern kept digging back into the game at the charity stripe. Despite only going 2-of-10 from the field in the first 6:27 of the quarter, the ‘Cats hit six of their seven attempts from the free-throw line in that same time frame.

Unfortunately, three-pointers are worth quite a bit more than free throws, and after Kamaria McDaniel hit the Spartans’ ninth of the game, the lead was extended to 57-42. Another deep shot by Julia Ayrault helped Michigan State crack 60 points for the game, and despite another McWilliams and-one, the third frame ended with Michigan State leading, 62-49.

The good free throw shooting continued for Northwestern in the final quarter, and a 4-of-4 mark from the team combined with a steal-to-layup by Wood resulted in Northwestern cutting the deficit to just 64-55. Wood then got tangled up with Parks after another steal, resulting in technical fouls for both Parks and Courtney Shaw, who had come over to help her teammate.

Despite the technical foul resulting in Parks being done for the day, the Wildcats couldn’t take advantage. While the defense was very active, forcing four turnovers in the first five minutes of the quarter, Northwestern converted just one shot from the field over a four minute span. However, that shot — a three-pointer from Hailey Weaver — cut the deficit to just eight points with over six minutes to go.

After the teams exchanged some free throws, a sweet reverse layup by Jillian Brown made the score 67-61 with under four minutes to play. Over a minute later, Weaver snatched an offensive rebound and put it back up to cut the lead to just four. Brown then fouled Isaline Alexander, but Alexander went 0-of-2 from the line, and Walsh snared the rebound.

Unfortunately, Northwestern got greedy, and a Brown air ball followed by an ill-advised steal attempt resulted in Ekh putting the dagger in with just 67 seconds remaining. After another miss from Brown, the free throw shooting contest began for the Spartans.

Northwestern had a chance late, but hit just one shot from the field after the 3:43 mark. Michigan State missed seven of its 12 free throw attempts in the frame, but Northwestern just couldn’t take advantage.

The Spartans have now scored 70 points or more in each of their last four games, all victories. They can take comfort in the fact that their offense can hang with any team in the Big Ten.

As for Northwestern, they haven’t put up 70 points since playing Valparaiso in November. The team has some offensive questions that need answering if it hopes to compete in the Big Ten this year. The ‘Cats will look to start that offensive retooling on January 5 when they travel to Champaign to face Illinois.