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Northwestern flashes signs of life in Big Ten opener at Maryland, but needs to string them together

The ‘Cats couldn’t capitalize on an encouraging second quarter in College Park.

@TerpsWBB / Twitter

With just over three minutes left in the second quarter against Maryland, the cylinders appeared to be finally clicking for Northwestern women’s basketball.

Casey Harter stared UMD’s Emily Fisher right in the face from the top of the key. Jab right, one dribble right, step back, swish. Harter, the first-year starting her first game at the collegiate level, had just put the exclamation point on an 11-2 run that brought the ‘Cats back from a nine-point deficit just three minutes earlier.

The three-pointer made the game a brand-new one by evening it up at 27. But it did more than just renew the game itself. It was a breath of fresh air for Harter, who had missed her first three shots. It reopened NU’s offense, which hadn’t converted a three before Harter’s make and was shooting 9-of-27 from the field at that point.

Most importantly, amid a four-game losing streak, the splash baptized the Wildcats by wiping their season’s slate clean and legitimizing their aspirations to start anew in Big Ten play. If that wasn’t enough, another game-tying trey by Harter just two minutes later punctuated what might have been Northwestern’s best quarter of basketball all year, considering the quality of opponent and the game’s location.

The ‘Cats were in prime position to go toe-to-toe with a Maryland team that has not lost at the XFINITY Center since Dec. 4, 2022, and potentially redefine their season.

Ultimately, they failed to do so in their 13-point loss for a number of reasons, many of which have led to the Wildcats’ 3-6 start. Northwestern committed 19 turnovers overall, and it shot 34% from the field in the second half. It couldn’t consistently generate quality looks inside the paint, while Maryland successfully attacked the basket and got to the free throw line 23 times. What made life even harder for the ‘Cats was that they started slow — again — and ended the first quarter down eight points.

Those issues persisted from the tipoff to the final horn, which is why the Terps dominated NU in the second half. They’ve been around since Game One. But, what appears to be new is the flash of concrete progress that the ‘Cats displayed during their second-quarter run.

Early deficits haven’t plagued Northwestern because they’ve occurred. They’ve buried it because those holes have tended to grow into insurmountable gaps. It’s happened each of the three times NU has played outside of Welsh-Ryan Arena this season, and its resounding 110-52 loss to No. 14 Notre Dame in South Bend was a prime example. Resilience wasn’t manifesting itself on the scoreboard, which has made Northwestern’s recent losing streak especially concerning.

Down 25-16 to the Terrapins, NU reversed course by putting on its second-quarter run capped off by Harter’s threes. The first-year wasn’t Northwestern’s only strength; Caileigh Walsh bounced back from a 1-of-6 start to provide a strong paint presence both as a scorer and a defender. Melannie Daley, who came off the bench, cashed in midrange jumpers at will en route to another efficient afternoon. Caroline Lau shined as a facilitator, both in space and in a half-court offense. The ‘Cats forced five Maryland turnovers in the period, and secured five offensive rebounds. With their backs against the wall, they responded before a win fell out of reach.

As good as that stretch was, it may not have even featured the best version of Joe McKeown’s team, which turned it over seven times in the second quarter alone. That further proves Northwestern can hang with almost any team when three or four members of its core are complementing each other by successfully playing their roles on both ends of the floor.

The question with this team — as it has been for the last 13 months — is how consistently it can do that.

The fatal blow didn’t come early in College Park. It came in the third quarter, which Maryland took by a 20-6 edge right after Northwestern had seemingly put itself in position for a dogfight. The Wildcats shot 3-of-16 from the field (1-of-13, not including Daley), got out-rebounded 15-8 and gave the rock away six times.

The transition of momentum wasn’t gradual. It was swift, and UMD seized a double-digit lead it wouldn’t relinquish before anyone could blink. NU only had one response in its bag on the day, and couldn’t deliver anything close to a counterpunch. It followed up an 11-2 run by allowing a 15-2 one.

The Wildcats may have laid a strong foundation down on Sunday. However, with just three more nonconference tilts left before Big Ten play kicks into full gear, they’ll need to build on it quickly.