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Northwestern is learning and growing, and it finally showed up in the win column

The young ‘Cats haven’t stopped battling, and that’s as much as you can ask for.

Coming off a demoralizing loss to Rutgers in which the Scarlet Knights scored the final 12 points of their 14-point win, Northwestern yanked itself out of its spiral against Minnesota. Its win broke a five-game losing streak, and might have been NU’s best win of the year when taking the quality of its opponents into account.

Not only did the ‘Cats coast to a double-digit victory over the Gophers for Joe McKeown’s 250th win as a Wildcat and their second conference win of the season, they did so by correcting nearly every fatal mistake that plagued them on Wednesday night and throughout these last few weeks of conference play.

It started with the ball security. NU committed 28 turnovers in Piscataway, its highest mark in a game in over a decade. On Saturday, the total was just eight. Northwestern’s primary ball-handlers — particularly Caroline Lau, Kaylah Rainey and Sydney Wood, who combined for just two turnovers — did a great job of controlling the pace and preventing Minnesota from getting out in transition.

“We emphasized taking care of the ball in practice after Rutgers,” Hailey Weaver said. “We had a lot of turnovers against Rutgers, and we knew we needed to be better if we wanted to win games going forward. So I think we did a good job of taking care of the ball today, and continuing to do that in the future is obviously important too.”

It will also be crucial for the ‘Cats to keep up their defensive tenacity. They did force 19 turnovers against the Scarlet Knights, but that was largely a product of the game’s sloppiness. Saturday was different; NU dictated the pace throughout most of the game with its press. Consequently, Northwestern was able to rack up a mind-boggling 18 steals en route to a 28-5 scoring margin off turnovers. The Blizzard reincarnated on a sunny day, and Weaver was its life force.

In just 18 minutes, the sophomore totaled six steals, and that even that doesn’t speak to how great her on-ball defense was. She deflected countless passes, and prevented the Gophers from developing substantial momentum after the end of the first quarter. Sydney Wood added four, and Paige Mott added three. It was a welcome change for NU, which has often been on the wrong side of lopsided turnover and transition scoring battles this year.

Not only did the adaptations come on the court, but also from the sidelines. Northwestern’s offense has typically run through Caileigh Walsh, but has featured her more so as a catch-and-shoot option along the perimeter than as an interior threat. She and Mott feasted in the paint against Minnesota, combining for 37 points on 13-of-21 shooting along with 10 free throws.

McKeown played a huge part in making that happen, tinkering with his lineups to revolve the offense around the two forwards in the post. He threw out some smaller four-out lineups, even starting the second quarter with a five of Lau, Wood, Weaver and Jillian Brown alongside Walsh. Because the guards were able to supplement Mott and Walsh with their solid shooting and ball movement, they were able to open up the paint for the bigs.

“We just haven’t shot it great all year,” McKeown said. “Today, we were able to spread the floor a little bit, get the ball inside, play inside-out, and then we made some shots. We’re streaky, and if we can get hot, then we can spread the floor.”

He also noted Mercy Ademusayo, who scored six points in eight minutes of play, did a great job of working inside as well. The fact that it was the sophomores like Walsh, Weaver and Ademusayo who carried most of the load on both sides is especially encouraging at this point in the season. Without much at stake, McKeown has been willing to give most of his underclassmen the chance to develop down the stretch, and they’ve shown signs of doing so. Although Minnesota isn’t a great team, and is now only one game ahead of the ‘Cats in the Big Ten, seeing that growth present itself in a relatively low-stress win is surely a confidence-booster.

Even at 2-14 in conference play, Northwestern hasn’t completely given up faith on the season, especially with Courtney Shaw possibly returning from injury in the coming weeks. It starts with McKeown, who has been a beacon of optimism throughout the past few months.

“We’ve been in so many games that I feel like if we could get healthy this week a little bit, we would probably — if you polled the [Big Ten] coaches and they told the truth — they would say, ‘I don’t want to play Northwestern,’” the head coach said. “I think we’re the team nobody wants to play. And I wish we were the team that’s where we used to be, but we get to this tournament, we can be a tough, tough out.”