Less than 10 days ago, Northwestern was reeling. The Wildcats had just lost by 25 to DePaul at home, extending their losing streak to six games (including the program’s first ever defeat at the hands of Loyola Chicago). The streak was snapped thanks to a 20-point home victory over Bradley, and yesterday’s 72-68 win over Temple gave the team its first winning streak since Nov. 12. Here are three takeaways from the team’s encouraging comeback victory.
The defense is heading in the right direction
Temple guard Aleah Nelson walked into the gym on Wednesday shooting 37% from the field on the season. She left the gym shooting at 35%. Her 5-of-20 day was emblematic of the Owls’ offensive struggles the entire day. Temple as a team shot just 31% for the game, failing to find the net on 56 of their 81 shots. Aside from Rayne Tucker, who shot 8-of-15, not a single Owls player finished the game shooting above 35%. If the Owls didn’t grab 27 offensive rebounds, then the stats on the offensive end would have looked even worse.
Temple’s shooting struggles didn’t just happen. The insertion of first-year Casey Harter into the starting lineup gives the team four starters all listed at 5-foot-11 or taller (and Caroline Lau, the fifth starter, is 5-foot-9). That added length made life very difficult for Temple on the offensive end, especially late in the shot clock when the offensive system broke down. The Wildcats totaled six blocks and four steals, but the impact of the improved defense can’t be fully measured by the stat sheet.
The biggest proof of the defense working: Temple’s collapse in the second half. The Owls converted eight of their 18 field goals in the first half, a respectable mark of 44.4%. After the break, though, the Owls crashed back down to earth. Temple made just five of its 26 second-half shots, an anemic mark of 19.2% (and no, that’s not a typo). After the defense’s struggles in late November and earlier this month, these last two results are very encouraging. This is the second consecutive game the Wildcats have held their opponents under 70 points, and also the second consecutive game they’ve won. That’s not an accident.
The rebounding is...not
Let’s travel back to the first paragraph of last section: “If the Owls didn’t grab 27 offensive rebounds, then the stats on the offensive end would have looked even worse.” Unfortunately, that stat is also not a typo. Temple missed 56 shots from the field, and yet 27 times, the basketball found its way back into the hands of a crimson-clad player. Even though Northwestern came away with the victory, a stat like that cannot happen.
Unfortunately, that stat is part of a much larger trend. Since Nov. 22, one month ago today, the Wildcats have played eight games. They have been out-rebounded in seven of those games, with the margin being -5 or larger each time. What does that add up to? A team dead last in the Big Ten in rebounding margin, at -2.1 per game. Wisconsin is the only other Big Ten squad that currently “boasts” a negative rebounding differential for the season. And the struggles stopping offensive rebounds? Those aren’t new either, as the Wildcats have given up double digit offensive rebounds in 11 of their 12 contests.
Needless to say, this is one habit the Wildcats will look to kick in the new year. They really don't have any other choice: the Big Ten currently has nine teams in the top 100 nationally in rebounding margin, including five in the top 50. In its lone Big Ten contest so far (a tight loss to Maryland), Northwestern lost the rebounding battle by nine. That mark included 19 offensive rebounds given up. If the Wildcats are going to be any sort of competitive in the conference, they have to start cleaning up the glass.
Casey Harter, the newest starter
The Pennsylvanian point guard didn’t exactly have an auspicious start to her collegiate career. Harter played just six minutes in her first career game against UIC, didn’t score until her third career game, and only received double digit minutes in blowouts against Notre Dame and Florida State. At least, that was the case until she put up 12 points in 29 minutes (both second-most on the team) in the loss to Belmont.
Since then, she’s earned the trust of both the coaching staff and her teammates, and the result is four consecutive starts. Harter has tallied 30 or more minutes in five of the six games since that Belmont contest, and after starting her first career game against Maryland, she hasn’t looked back. She’s led the team in minutes in three of the last four games, and would have done it against Temple as well had Lau not played 37 minutes.
Why has Joe McKeown put so much trust and responsibility on a first year? Because Harter has earned it. She’s scored in double figures in five of her last seven games, Despite her relative inexperience, she’s showcased a great basketball mind, as evidenced by her 1.85 assist to turnover ratio (second highest on the team). Over her four starts (the last four games), Harter has upped her averages from 5.3 points, 2.3 rebounds, and 1.0 assists per game to 7.0, 3.2, and 2.0. Much like Lau last year, Harter has earned a spot thanks to both her poise and her overall play. McKeown and the rest of the staff hope she can continue doing so as Big Ten play kicks into high gear.