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Rapid Reaction: Northwestern lets game slip away in the fourth, falls to Rutgers 62-48

Turnovers proved costly for the ‘Cats in a game that was within reach for much of the contest.

@NUWBball on Twitter.

In a hectic, sloppy game between Northwestern (8-18, 1-14 B1G) and Rutgers (11-16, 5-10 B1G), the ‘Cats let the game slip away in the fourth quarter and came up short 62-48. The ‘Cats had a whopping 28 turnovers in this game, but the Scarlet Knights weren’t much better with 19.

Caileigh Walsh and Jillian Brown were the most notable contributors for the ‘Cats offensively. Walsh scored 14, while Brown had 11 and shot efficiently, shooting 5-of-10 from the field. As a team, the ‘Cats were very solid defensively, but also benefitted from a poor shooting performance by Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights were 35 percent from the field, but it was worse than that for much of the contest.

Rutgers was led by freshman phenom Kaylene Smikle’s 21 points. Junior forward Chyna Cornwell also had 17 rebounds and scored 11 in a win that propelled Rutgers ahead of Penn State and into a first-round bye slot in the Big Ten tournament.

Defense on both sides was strong early in the first quarter. Rutgers’ Erica Lafayette got the scoring going for the Scarlet Knights before Walsh drew a foul and made both free throws to pull the score back even.

Walsh continued to impress over the next few possessions, assisting Paige Mott and then converting on an and-one to propel the ‘Cats to a 7-2 lead. Walsh had seven points in the first five minutes of the game.

The Rutgers offense scuffled early on, only making two of its first eight shots from the field. Meanwhile, after the under-five TV timeout, Northwestern continued to build its lead. Senior guard Sydney Wood knocked down a three with two minutes left in the quarter to put the ‘Cats up 14-6. However, Rutgers clawed back to 14-10 before the end of the first.

First-year guard Caroline Lau got the second quarter started for Northwestern with a three-ball. Then Kaylah Rainey hit another one on the ensuing possession. After a Walsh bucket inside that gave the ‘Cats a 22-12 lead, Rutgers coach Coquese Washington called a time-out to regroup.

The timeout worked. With about seven minutes remaining in the quarter, Walsh was hit with her second foul of the game and subbed out. After her exit, Rutgers scored six in a row to pull back within two. During the mini-run, Northwestern’s second leading scorer, Wood, committed two offensive fouls. All of the sudden, the ‘Cats’ two best players were in foul trouble early.

Rutgers continued to see improvement on the offensive end. With four minutes left, the Scarlet Knights took the lead 27-26. Down the stretch in the half, a sloppy game got even sloppier. The Wildcats had a 30-29 lead when the buzzer sounded, but they also had 16 turnovers in the half.

Walsh and Wood were the ‘Cats’ best players in the half — Walsh had nine and Wood had five — but both went to the locker room with two fouls. For Rutgers, Smikle led the charge with nine, but only shot 4-of-11 from the field and was 1-of-5 from long distance.

Walsh got the third quarter started for the ‘Cats with a three pointer, but committed her third foul on the Scarlet Knight’s next possession. She was immediately subbed out. Trends from the first half persisted, as Northwestern turned the ball over three more times in the first four minutes and Rutgers continued to struggle shooting the ball.

Northwestern took a 37-32 lead out of the half behind buckets from Wood and Brown. However, Smikle immediately made two straight buckets (and forced yet another turnover) to bring Rutgers back within one.

After the under-five, Brown knocked down a three, bringing her to 11 points in the contest and extending the lead back to four. The Scarlet Knights immediately responded, taking advantage of Wildcat turnovers to storm back and take the lead 42-40. Northwestern had 21 turnovers in the first three quarters of this contest.

Walsh was fouled with seven seconds left in the quarter, and the 77% free throw shooter made both shots to tie the game at 42-42. That’s where the score would stay until the buzzer sounded ending the third.

Northwestern scored the first points of the fourth, but Rutgers then came up with its 14th steal of the night, and Awa Sidibe converted an and-one attempt to give the Scarlet Knights the lead.

Both teams went into a bit of a scoring draught, until just under the seven-minute mark, when Wood converted a layup to retake the lead 46-45. After another short scoring hiatus, Smikle made one of the flashier plays of the night, throwing a full-court pass to Kassondra Brown for a fast-break bucket. Northwestern called timeout down 47-46 with 5:11 to play.

After the timeout, Smikle knocked down a triple to stretch the lead to four, but then Wood scored for the ‘Cats to cut it back to 50-48. With 3:36 remaining, the game stopped for about five minutes for a fairly mysterious replay review. All that resulted was a two second shift in the game clock.

After the break, Rutgers started to pull away from the ‘Cats. Kai Carter, Sidibe and Brown all scored in succession to stretch the lead to 56-48. Then, Brown scored again to stretch the lead to ten.

With 1:05 remaining, the ‘Cats’ Hailey Weaver gave the ball up on a travel, and it was curtains for Northwestern. It was a tight one from start to finish, but Rutgers was the better team when it mattered most, prevailing 62-48.

Northwestern returns to the court Saturday at home against Minnesota. Tip is set for 2 p.m. CT.