It was over at halftime.
Trailing 45-27 to the Fighting Illini after the second quarter, Northwestern appeared doomed to the same fate it had suffered in losses to ranked teams such as Oregon, Notre Dame, Duke and Ohio State. In each of those defeats (albeit to excellent opponents), the Wildcats fell behind early by a large sum and ultimately did not play a competitive game. The matches were over by the second quarter.
A similar result did not happen Thursday night.
Against a much improved Illinois team compared to the 14 losing iterations Northwestern had played prior, the Wildcats faced a similar, yet beatable opponent as the aforementioned ranked losses. The 13-2 Illini led by only three a minute into the second period, but a 25-10 run to close the half in which NU shot 25.8% appeared to seal the deal with 20 minutes still remaining.
Instead, Northwestern came out in the second half swinging. With the deficit still 18 four minutes into the third, the Wildcats went on a 13-3 run over the span of three and a half minutes in which they went 6-of-7 from the field. The streak made it a single digit game, and the deficit became just seven entering the final period. The 29-point quarter saw more points and made shots than the entire half before it, and the team’s 12-of-16 clip was far more efficient than the rate that preceded it.
Entering the fourth, both teams started hot. The Wildcats gained momentum when, four minutes in and trailing by nine, Sydney Wood hit a layup, then Kaylah Rainey scored five straight via an and-one and a fastbreak bucket. The lead was cut to just two, and it looked for a second like the ‘Cats could actually complete their shocking comeback.
Needless to say, it didn’t happen, but the biggest takeaway from Thursday’s bout was not the end result on the scoreboard. It was the fact that, despite facing a giant hole and slim chances of victory, the team was relentless and fought till the very end. The Wildcats didn’t lie down and accept defeat, as they seemed to in those earlier matchups. Rather, they were led by dominant performances from Wood and Rainey, who each scored 12 in the latter half and were the glue that held the team together.
Contributions came from everywhere. Courtney Shaw played all but one minute in the second half and made all five of her shots, totaling 17 points while coming off the bench. Caileigh Walsh went 4-of-6 in the second half and had 10 herself. First-year Caroline Lau played what may have been her best game so far, tying a season-high eight points and helping run the offense. Across the board, the team played like a real unit in the second, far surpassing their efforts in the first 20 minutes.
Even if it didn’t result in a win, the Wildcats’ second-half effort inspired optimism for the rest of the season. The Big Ten is one of the toughest basketball conferences to play in, and if Northwestern can play for a full 40 minutes like it did in 20 against the Illini, the ‘Cats will have the chance to upset some quality teams and pull themselves from the basement of the conference. This season, more than anything, is about development with such a young team. After Thursday’s match, there is real reason for hope that this team is progressing in the right direction.