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Three takeaways from Northwestern women’s basketball’s three-game losing streak

Winter is looking bleak.

Northwestern Athletics

Things aren’t great. Sitting at 3-4, Northwestern women’s basketball has lost its last three games in a row. At the Ball Dawgs Classic in Las Vegas, the ‘Cats fell to No. 13 Florida State 90-52 before losing to Belmont in the consolation game by 22 points. A few days later, the Wildcats lost to Loyola-Chicago 73-68 at Welsh-Ryan Arena for the first time in 26 games against the Ramblers to extend the losing streak. Here’s three takeaways from that stretch:

Northwestern needs to start faster to give itself a fighting chance

It’s something head coach Joe McKeown immediately pointed out in his presser following NU’s loss to Loyola-Chicago, when he called his team’s play “unacceptable” in a first quarter where the Ramblers led 21-10. In their past three games, the ‘Cats have been outscored in the first quarter by a combined mark of 71-35. Extending that to the beginning of the season, Northwestern has been outscored by double-digits in the first or second quarter in every game but one: its win over Omaha.

It hasn’t always been because of shooting struggles, or even the turnovers: it’s often been due to defensive issues. In each of those three first quarters, the ‘Cats surrendered more than 20 points. Defensive breakdowns — particularly on the perimeter when it came to closing out on shots — constantly put Northwestern behind the eight ball early in games.

Casey Harter is improving rapidly, but Northwestern needs more out of Caroline Lau

From the team’s scrimmage on Nov. 2 onward, it’s been clear that Casey Harter would earn significant minutes off the bench. For a true first-year, that’s impressive by itself. Yet, the Philadelphia native has gone even further, as she’s seized the sixth-woman spot with her perimeter shooting and then some.

In her first four games, Harter only broke the 10-minute threshold twice, and went scoreless in three of those contests. However, against FSU, Belmont and Loyola, she’s played 25, 29 and 35 minutes, respectively. She broke her career-high of six points against Notre Dame in each of these last three games, and punctuated that run with a 14-point game versus the Ramblers on a 6-of-7 shooting clip. While Northwestern has struggled with turnovers, Harter hasn’t; she has just two turnovers combined in the last three games despite taking on point guard duties for long stretches. On Wednesday after the Loyola loss, McKeown complimented the first-year’s versatility and decision-making.

On the other hand, Caroline Lau has struggled with ball security and foul trouble since Northwestern went to Las Vegas. Against the Seminoles, she turned the ball over eight times while shooting 1-of-7 from the field. It didn’t get much better against Belmont, when Lau only played 11 minutes. The sophomore committed two fouls and two turnovers without scoring a point or picking up an assist, and Harter took most of the point guard minutes throughout the middle of the game. Lau rebounded against Loyola and stuffed the stat sheet, but still only played 22 minutes in a game that went down to the wire.

It’s worth noting that some of these struggles could be somewhat out of Lau’s control — she has worn a mask on the court for at least the last two weeks, and could be playing through an injury. Still, though, Northwestern needs more at the guard spot to win Big Ten games, let alone the non-conference ones that should be much easier.

Given how vital Lau is to Northwestern’s future, it’s incredibly hard to imagine Harter supplanting her as the starter. If Harter continues to improve the way she has in the last three games, though, McKeown will have to find some way to up her minute total. With a month left until NU enters the crux of the Big Ten slate, it should be interesting to see how both players will develop.

This could be the lowest point of the Joe McKeown Era, or close to it

Entering Wednesday, Northwestern was 25-0 all-time against Loyola. Last year, the Ramblers went 6-24, lost their last 16 games in a row and were the worst team in the Atlantic 10. In their opener on Nov. 6, they lost by 16 points at home to UIC, a team that NU beat three days later.

Not only did Loyola come into Welsh-Ryan Arena and win, it never trailed. After the ‘Cats tied the score at two points, the Ramblers broke the tie and led the rest of the way.

It marked Northwestern’s fourth loss in November. The Wildcats haven’t lost four games before Dec. 1 since 2008-09, which happened to be McKeown’s first season at the helm. He inherited a team that had gone 5-26 overall in the year prior, and 1-17 in Big Ten play.

This team is much more talented. Three of its starters are top-100 recruits, according to ESPN. Northwestern returned three of its five starters from last year, and that’s not even including Melannie Daley and Hailey Weaver. Losing a great defender like Sydney Wood hurts, but returning that many key players should have alleviated the issue. Instead, Northwestern’s defensive rating stood at 111.1 points per 100 possessions heading into the Loyola game, which sits at Division I’s fourth percentile.

This is the stage of the season where many expected growth from a young team to manifest itself, but that just hasn’t happened. With the competition only getting stiffer, it’s fair to wonder if it will.

Northwestern has Georgetown, Maryland and a DePaul team that just beat Loyola by 21 last Sunday up next. There’s a very real chance the ‘Cats start 3-7, and a six-game losing streak before the new year arrives is a recipe for disaster. Ultimately, Northwestern has to get in the win column soon, or at least show substantial improvement on the defensive end.