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Even in a loss, Northwestern’s graduating class flashed its most lasting impact: toughness

It’s up to the younger ‘Cats to make it last.

@BadgerWBB / Twitter

Speeding up the court in the final seconds of another tight defeat, Kaylah Rainey tripped, lost the ball and clutched her lower leg as the buzzer sounded.

A hush fell over Welsh-Ryan Arena while Rainey, one of two seniors honored before the game, remained on the floor. It sounded like the immediate aftermath of the Will Smithian smack in the face that it was: the exclamation point on a disappointing night that capped off a disappointing season at home.

After a few seconds, Rainey got up and walked with her team into the tunnel under her own power.

The other senior was Laya Hartman, who had been dealing with injuries throughout the season. In fact, her Senior Night start against Wisconsin marked her first appearance on the court since Jan. 5. Yet, there didn’t seem to be rust for Hartman to shake off. She was actually one of Northwestern’s most meaningful offensive contributors in the first quarter. The senior scored NU’s first points of the night with a layup, assisted Courtney Shaw a few possessions later and knocked down a three-pointer soon after to establish some offensive rhythm for the ‘Cats.

They wouldn’t capitalize on the quick start, as the Wildcats shot just 33% from the field — a mark that neared 20% as late as the third quarter. Regardless, Hartman and Rainey’s nights highlighted what has made their time in Evanston so special: their constant perseverance, and their ability as leaders to continue setting that quality as the program’s standard.

These are two players who joined the program in 2019-2020, a season that seemed a lot like this men’s basketball season with title aspirations multiplied by 100. Northwestern was 26-4 overall — on the cusp of not only going to the NCAA Tournament, but doing so as a borderline top 10 team in the nation — and then the COVID-19 pandemic stopped it all.

Hartman, Rainey and the rest of the team had to start over and try to build all the way back. While they came close, they could never quite reach the magical heights of that season. However, that didn’t stop them from doing so with ferocity and optimism, even through a rough season like this one.

“They’ve been really resilient through all those things,” McKeown said. “I’m really proud of them.”

He also shouted out Sydney Wood and Shaw, both graduate students likely playing their final games in Evanston, as huge contributors throughout their careers. Shaw has struggled to stay healthy throughout this season, and Wood missed most of the 2021-2022 season with an injury she sustained in November. But they, too, continued to contribute both on and off the court in as many ways as they could.

Wood’s performance against the Badgers personified that. Even though she missed her first four shots from the field, she kept Northwestern’s offense going by consistently getting to the free throw line. Wood made 8-of-9 from the charity stripe, and she picked up her shooting as the game went on to counter Wisconsin’s great three-point shooting. The grad student would end up finishing with 17 points, five rebounds and five assists to lead the ‘Cats.

Northwestern lost this game largely because of its shooting struggles, and that’s a phrase that has been oft-repeated these last two months. It’s trite, but true. It demonstrates that even though the team’s four departing players have set a solid foundation in the past few years, its younger players will determine how strong that impact will be.

NU’s performance in its last two games has been a good start. Following up their win over Minnesota on Saturday, the ‘Cats clawed back from 13 points down in the second quarter against Wisconsin to eventually tie the game late in the fourth. They held the Badgers to just 35% from the field and 18 points in the paint. For a team that hasn’t had a lot at stake for weeks now, that defensive performance is encouraging.

The team’s optimism still shines in what’s shaping up to be the worst season of the McKeown Era, which is pretty remarkable. The head coach continues to stress that Northwestern has the potential to make noise in the Big Ten Tournament if its shooting can heat up, and the players aren’t letting the piling losses turn into apathetic blowouts. It has started with the seniors, who have found signs of joy elsewhere.

“Despite this year, taking L’s, we’ve always had great times off the court,” Rainey said. “The bonds I’ve created with these people in the past have been very real for me and fulfilling, because I’ll have them in my life forever.”