Between Dec. 17, 2022 and Jan. 25, 2023, Hanukkah candles were lit, Christmas carols were sung, the ball was dropped in Times Square and Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy was celebrated. In the span of those 40 days, however, Northwestern women’s basketball went winless.
Indeed, after defeating Air Force on a Saturday night in mid-December, the Wildcats dropped eight straight contests. From blowout defeats against ranked opponents in Ohio State and Indiana to ever-so-close losses to Purdue and Illinois, NU made its way around the merry-go-round of nearly every way to drop a contest.
In many ways, that eight-game stretch embodied what has been a season of searching for Joe McKeown. Without former program anchor Veronica Burton, the ‘Cats have struggled to establish any sort of identity, not translating practice efforts to the real hardwood. A 7-13 record with a dismal 0-9 conference mark reflects just that.
Throughout the season, though, there have been flashes. Veterans Paige Mott, Sydney Wood and Courtney Shaw have all contributed in one way or another, even in largely unexpected ways — Mott more than doubling her scoring average, Shaw becoming a dominant down-low force off the bench.
Sans Burton, the ‘Cats have been longing to see not only other vets step up, but also continued growth out of a nucleus of young talent; against Chicago State, we witnessed just that.
Making only her second career start, first-year Caroline Lau was magnificent. The guard tallied a career-best 20 points in only 28 minutes, shooting an efficient 6-for-10 from the floor and 78% true shooting percentage. Beyond just scoring output, Lau added seven rebounds, six assists, two blocks and a steal. Throughout the year, Lau has demonstrated her skill on both ends of the court, but it truly manifested itself Wednesday night.
Likewise, team scoring leader Caileigh Walsh posted another standout contest. Despite shooting only 3-for-10 in the first half, Walsh collected 17 points and 10 rebounds to notch her second double-double of the year. While Walsh has been rather inconsistent in her second year, her ability to make halftime adjustments — and to especially attack inside with her 6-foot-3 frame — are especially encouraging.
Granted, the circumstances of Wednesday night need mentioning. The ‘Cats opposed a one-win Chicago State team. While McKeown’s side led the entire way, the Cougars drew within only two points in the first three minutes of the third quarter. To its credit, Northwestern answered with a dominant second half, but, as Lau indicated after the game, this contest should never have been close. Moreover, this outcome does not erase the goose egg that lingers in the Wildcats’ conference mark.
At the same time, a win is, well, a win. That sentiment holds extra weight when a W has not been earned since the calendar flipped, as well as entering the final stretch of the campaign.
“Really, the rest of the season are all winnable games for us,” Walsh said. “This comes at a really good time because it’s giving momentum for us for the rest of the season.”
The ‘Cats get a legitimate shot at a conference victory this Sunday as they head to Madison to battle the 7-14 Badgers. In fact, only one ranked team — Maryland — remains in what’s been a gauntlet for the purple and white.
While 2022-23 will likely be amounted to a developmental year, Northwestern is definitely on the cusp. Only time will tell when and under what circumstances the Wildcats claim their inaugural win in conference play, as well as how consistently the team can perform, but this team’s youthful talent is more than evident for the rest of the season and beyond.