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Northwestern’s fourth-quarter response could be an inflection point

The ‘Cats found the second spark they so desperately needed.

@nuwbball / Twitter

There’s something about Casey Harter and exclamation points.

With under nine minutes to play in the fourth quarter, Northwestern found itself down 62-58. It had already erased a double-digit deficit in the second quarter, only for Rutgers to open up an eight-point edge late in the third. When Jillian Huerter got baseline position on Harter on a dribble drive from the right wing, it seemed like the Scarlet Knights would quell NU’s momentum yet again.

Instead, the first-year guard reached over to block Huerter’s layup, snagged the rebound and took it 94 feet the other way for a coast-to-coast score. This wasn’t the first run-punctuating play for Harter. Against Maryland three weeks ago, she tied the game at 27 in the second quarter with a step-back three after Northwestern found itself down by nine just three minutes earlier. However, the mark that shot left on the game wasn’t permanent because NU followed its game-tying run with a third quarter in which it got outscored 20-6 and made fewer field goals than turnovers.

Whether they’ve come at the beginning of games or in the third quarter, gigantic opposing runs like those have plagued the ‘Cats all year. It seemed like the Rutgers game would follow a similar blueprint when the Scarlet Knights maintained control after Northwestern’s second-quarter run. Harter’s play led to three things that proved the opposite:

  1. Bringing Northwestern within two, it marked a second comeback response.
  2. Coming from Harter, who wasn’t NU’s primary option on either end on Saturday, it demonstrated that this answer came from the entire team (not just hot shooting from a player or two).
  3. It turned a run into an avalanche. Northwestern would never trail again after the next bucket, which was a game-tying midrange jumper from Melannie Daley.

The Wildcats didn’t just bring themselves back into the game with their 12-0 fourth quarter run. They also seized control, and the game-changing plays came from every starter. That dominant stretch proved their second-quarter response wasn’t just a flash in the pan, but a hint of something greater coming up.

And that begs the question: was that fourth quarter also a sign of things to come?

It may be. Northwestern played as balanced of a game against Rutgers as it has against any Power Six opponent this season. The Scarlet Knights couldn’t stop Caileigh Walsh, who dropped 22 points (16 of which came in the first half), stayed out of foul trouble in the first 20 minutes and stretched the defense at all three levels. When she cooled off, Northwestern shifted seamlessly to running its offense through Daley and her midrange prowess.

As the third option, Paige Mott continued a hyper-efficient four-game stretch by going 7-of-9 from the field and taking attention off Walsh. Even the two starters who didn’t shoot well, Harter and Caroline Lau, made their presences felt by combining for 15 of NU’s 24 assists and 12 of the Wildcats’ 29 rebounds.

Northwestern didn’t shoot a three-pointer in the fourth quarter. Although that’s a little strange for a fast-paced team like NU, the greater takeaway from that is that the Wildcats found immense success working their way inside. Whether those points came in transition off turnovers or post entry passes to Mott, Northwestern earned higher-quality looks. It’s why the ‘Cats shot 7-of-11 from the field in the final period, and it might just be a recipe for success going forward if they can win the turnover battle, which they did on Saturday.

This win did come against a Rutgers team that, for some reason, played Kaylene Smikle for just five minutes in the second quarter. Shooting as well as NU did from the field in the fourth quarter is also a lot to ask. However, if it can continue playing that type of balanced basketball with multiple runs in their favor against Big Ten competition, it can build on this. It flashed this resilience against Temple, and put it on full display at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

Northwestern’s next test is a road matchup against a Penn State team that took No. 17 Ohio State to overtime in November and lost to No. 6 USC by just one point. A win against a team that leads the nation with a 42.1% three-point percentage is going to be incredibly difficult. If the ‘Cats can do that, though, a ship that appeared to be sinking a few weeks ago will be afloat and cruising.