Northwestern women’s basketball opened its main Big Ten slate the same way it closed off the calendar year: on a high note.
The Wildcats (6-7, 1-1 B1G) roared back from a double-digit deficit to pick up their first conference win of the season over Rutgers (6-9, 0-2 B1G) in a 77-70 victory. A 19-4 run in the first seven minutes of the fourth quarter fueled NU to a win over a Scarlet Knights team that eliminated the ‘Cats in last season’s Big Ten Tournament.
Caileigh Walsh and Melannie Daley both enjoyed great days, as the duo combined for 42 points on 14-of-26 shooting from the field. On top of that, Paige Mott contributed with 15 points and four rebounds on a hyper-efficient 7-of-9 shooting clip.
For Rutgers, Lisa Thompson and Kassondra Brown led the way with 17 points apiece. Both players fouled out in the fourth quarter, which proved to be critical during Northwestern’s game-clinching run. Star sophomore guard Kaylene Smikle, who didn’t play in the first quarter, finished with just two points.
Even without Smikle in the starting lineup, Rutgers drew first blood. Thompson got the scoring started with a midrange jumper, and doubled her total with two free throws to put Rutgers up 4-0. However, Walsh answered with a catch-and-shoot three. Those buckets were the lone bright spots in a quiet opening stretch, as both teams went on to miss their next 10 shots from the field.
Walsh added a pair of free throws at the seven-minute mark to give the ‘Cats the lead, only for Thompson to break the field goal drought to give the Scarlet Knights a 6-5 edge heading into the game’s first media timeout with 6:27 left in the first quarter.
The brief stoppage wouldn’t cool down Thompson, who reached eight points on a jumper to answer a layup in transition from Daley. After a few misses, Mya Petticord took a rebound down the floor and drained a jump shot to extend Rutgers’ lead to 10-7, marking RU’s first points that Thompson didn’t score.
Mott answered with an and-one on the other end, but couldn’t make the free throw. The Scarlet Knights responded by ripping off eight unanswered points. Brown finished an and-one and tacked on the additional free throw, with Chyna Cornwell adding to the lead with a layup off a Caroline Lau turnover. After a trey by Petticord, NU found itself down 18-9 with 2:32 left in the first period.
The ‘Cats briefly rebounded, as Walsh poured in four straight points. In response, Petticord buried another three-pointer, and Thompson got to double digits. Hailey Weaver burnt Rutgers’ press with a fastbreak bucket to cut Northwestern’s deficit, but the Wildcats found themselves down 23-15 after 10 minutes.
Daley opened the second quarter beautifully, intercepting a Thompson pass and feeding Weaver on the break to force a Rutgers timeout just 16 seconds in. Smikle then checked in after not playing the entire first quarter, and it appeared to give RU a boost. The Scarlet Knights made three of their next four field goals to extend their lead to double digits again.
Not to be outdone, Walsh continued to dominate inside with an and-one off a slick pass from Lau. The three-point play got her to 14 points on the afternoon, and made it a 31-24 ballgame in Rutgers’ favor.
Despite a bucket from Smikle, Northwestern continued to click on offense. Mott and Daley found the net with two layups, which brought the ‘Cats within five points. Both teams exchanged a few free throws before Mott and Daley poured in two more buckets. No. 21’s teardrop cut Rutgers’ lead to 36-33 with two minutes remaining in the half. A few possessions later, though, a Walsh layup made it a one-point game.
Both teams traded buckets to close out the second quarter, with Maggie Pina tying the game at 38 with a three-pointer from the left wing. A jumper by Brown gave Rutgers a 40-38 edge heading into the break, but Northwestern had seized momentum with a 19-7 run in the last seven minutes.
After a scoreless first half, Lau immediately got on the board in the third quarter with a game-tying layup. Cornwell subsequently picked up a point at the charity stripe, but Northwestern took the lead for the first time since the 5:53 mark in the first quarter with another layup from Mott. Two free throws from Walsh gave the Wildcats a 44-41 edge —their largest lead of the game.
NU’s offensive firepower began to simmer down, as it went without a bucket for the next two-plus minutes. Although Destiny Adams picked up a steal-and-score off a bad pass from Casey Harter to give Rutgers the lead back, Pina buried her second lead-changing three. Daley then answered a layup by Brown with one of her own, which gave Northwestern a 49-48 lead and prompted RU head coach Coquese Washington to use her second timeout with 5:06 in the third quarter.
Those 30 seconds energized Rutgers, which made its next three shots to go up by four points. Another midrange jumper by Daley and a free throw from Walsh kept NU in the game, but a second-chance and-one from Adams sucked the wind out of the Wildcats’ sails. It gave Rutgers a 58-52 lead, and punctuated what had been a dominant performance on the boards for RU. It had outrebounded Joe McKeown’s team by a 31-18 margin up to that point. The rest of the period went smoothly for the Scarlet Knights, who held a 62-56 lead going into the final 10 minutes.
Down but not out, the ‘Cats evened up the score with three straight buckets. A block and coast-to-coast layup from Harter was the highlight of what would end up becoming a 12-0 run for Northwestern. Following Harter’s bucket, Daley gave the Wildcats the lead back with two free throws. After Harter put in another jumper off a second-chance opportunity, Petticord ended Rutgers’ drought with a score to make it 66-64.
That didn’t stop Daley, who continued to erupt with an and-one jumper that gave Northwestern a five-point edge with under six minutes to go. For the next few minutes, the ‘Cats dominated on both ends, with Lau punctuating NU’s run with a beautiful feed to Mott. It gave the Wildcats a 75-66 edge with just over three minutes to go. That proved to be the dagger, as NU closed out the game without much trouble for its first Big Ten win.
Northwestern will continue its Big Ten slate in the new year at Penn State on Tuesday night. Tip-off is set for 5 p.m. CT, and the action will be broadcast on Big Ten Plus.