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Rapid Reaction: Northwestern puts on defensive clinic to beat Minnesota 76-62 for second Big Ten win

The ‘Cats bounced back in a huge way.

@GopherWBB / Twitter

Northwestern (9-18, 2-14 B1G) used a smothering defensive performance to pick up its second conference win on Saturday afternoon at Welsh-Ryan Arena as the Wildcats defeated Minnesota (10-17, 3-13 B1G) 76-62. The win marks the 250th for Joe McKeown as Northwestern head coach.

Northwestern had very active hands all game, collecting a whopping 18 steals in the victory. Hailey Weaver and Sydney Wood both had particularly stellar days on the defensive end, collecting six and four steals respectively. Overall, Northwestern forced Minnesota into 25 turnovers and held them to just 29 second half points.

Offensively, Caileigh Walsh had a stellar outing for the ‘Cats, leading all scorers with 22 points on 8-of-13 shooting. Paige Mott was the only other Wildcat in double figures, as she collected 15 points and five rebounds. Caroline Lau also put together a good performance with nine points and three assists.

For the Gophers, Mara Braun led the way with 12 points on 4-of-10 shooting from the field, along with six rebounds. Katie Borowicz also poured in 11, hitting three of her six three-pointers on the afternoon.

It was a free-flowing offensive start to the game for both teams, with both squads making five of their first nine shot attempts. However, a quick five point burst by the Gophers, kickstarted by a top of the key three from Maura Braun, gave the visitors a 14-11 lead at the first media timeout. Walsh was the offensive catalyst in the early going for Northwestern, as the sophomore knocked down her first two shots and either scored or assisted her teams’ first three baskets.

Out of the timeout, Lau provided a spark off the bench, quickly knocking down a layup and a three-pointer sandwiched around Minnesota’s third three of the first period, a Katie Borowicz splashdown from the top of the key.

Northwestern closed the first quarter strong. After the Borowicz bucket, Minnesota scored just two points over the quarter’s final 3:33 as the ‘Cats closed the quarter on a 6-2 run. Mercy Ademusayo poured in four points off the bench, and Hailey Weaver put an exclamation point on the quarter with a steal and fast break layup to put the ‘Cats up 22-19 at the end of one.

The teams continued to trade punches to start the second quarter. Maura Braun briefly gave Minnesota a 25-24 lead with a midrange jumper, but the ‘Cats responded quickly as a Walsh free-throw and another Weaver steal and layup put the home side back on top.

The well then ran dry offensively for the Golden Gophers, as they went almost four minutes between field goals. The ‘Cats couldn’t take advantage of the cold spell to pull away, but a FOURTH Weaver steal of the first half triggered a fast break score that gave the home side a 33-29 lead and forced Minnesota coach Lindsay Whalen to call timeout with 2:04 to play in the quarter.

The visitors were able to close the gap out of the timeout on the back of four quick points from Destinee Oberg. Her layup tied the score at 33 with 19 seconds to play in the first half. The ‘Cats were then able to get down the floor quickly and Caroline Lau put in a layup to give Northwestern a 35-33 lead at halftime. At the break, Borowicz and Walsh paced their teams’ scoring outputs with eight points apiece.

Northwestern could not have scripted a better start to the second half. The defense forced three turnovers and held Minnesota off the scoreboard while the offense converted on four of its first five trips down the floor to extend the two-point lead all the way up to 10, 43-33, on a Caleigh Walsh spinning layup with 7:35 to play in the third.

Minnesota finally got on the scoreboard with 6:54 left in the third as Alanna Micheaux knocked down a turnaround jumper, but the Gophers could not to make a dent in the Wildcat lead as the teams traded points throughout the middle of the third. At the 4:40 mark of the quarter, Northwestern maintained its double digit advantage, 48-38

Northwestern looked like it might pull away as the third quarter wound down, but Minnesota kept making key plays to hang around. Kayla Rainey hit a three to give the Wildcats their biggest lead of the day at 51-38, but Borowicz matched that effort on the next possession by banking in a three of her own.

Then, after two Paige Mott free throws extended the lead back to 12, Isabelle Gradwell darted down the floor and made a layup while drawing a foul to bring the Gophers back within single digits. The third quarter ended the same way the second one did, with two Lau points, and the ‘Cats entered the final quarter up 12, 57-45.

A big reason for the Northwestern’s success in the third was its defense, as the ‘Cats were able to force the Gophers into a whopping nine giveaways in the frame. This defensive aggressiveness continued to start the fourth quarter, as a bad Minnesota pass on its first offensive possession triggered a fast break layup by Mott on the other end.

That two-possession sequence was a precursor for how the rest of the game was going to go. Northwestern kept forcing turnovers and getting easy baskets inside, and as a result continued to extend its lead in the closing minutes.

The Wildcats will look to keep the momentum going in a rematch with Wisconsin at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Thursday night at 6 p.m. CT. You can catch the action on the Big Ten Network.