Despite a first-round loss in the Big Ten Tournament, Northwestern shows a glimmer of competitiveness and young talent that can shine next year.
The Wildcats (9-21, 2-16 B1G) fell just short of completing a comeback against 11th-seeded Rutgers (12-19, 5-13 B1G) in Minneapolis, 63-59.
Kaylene Smikle put on a remarkable shooting display to lead the Scarlet Knights. The first-year dropped 26 points on 9-of-15 shooting, five rebounds, four steals and two blocks before fouling out late in the fourth quarter. Chyna Cornwell added 15 points and 15 rebounds, while Awa Sidibe and Kai Carter each added 11 points.
Caileigh Walsh played exceptionally for the ‘Cats, posting 24 points and making 6-of-9 three-pointers. Mott also had 11 points in the loss. Defensively, Sydney Wood had an impressive outing with five blocks.
The game started with three straight turnovers before Kaylah Rainey made a layup for the ‘Cats. The back-and-forth with no buckets continued until Wood scored more than a minute and a half later to give Northwestern a 4-0 lead.
Rutgers responded on its following drive with a bucket. After four possession changes, Walsh sank a three-pointer for a 7-2 lead. Coming out of a Rutgers timeout, Walsh committed a foul to bring the Scarlet Knights to the foul line and add another point.
Following another series of turnovers, Walsh made her second three of the game to which Rutgers immediately responded. The Wildcat treys continued with Jillian Brown. A jumper and a free throw from Kai Carter then gave Rutgers its first three-point play of the game.
In the remaining minutes, the Scarlet Knights were reignited by Kaylene Smikle who took over the scoring scene in Minneapolis. Smikle added five of the next seven points, giving Rutgers its first lead of the game at 15-13. A Caroline Lau three momentarily gave the ‘Cats a lead, but a jumper and a three-pointer with one second left in the quarter gave Coquese Washington’s squad a 20-16 advantage.
The second quarter opened with a three from Smikle, which not only set the tone of Rutgers retaking the game, but gave Smikle the all-time first-year scoring record at Rutgers with 538.
Following another Rutgers bucket, Lau drained her second three-pointer of the game. Mott then made a pair of free throws to cut Rutgers’ lead to four points. After three attempts, the Scarlet Knights came up victorious in a rebound battle for a 27-21 advantage.
A scoring drought of over two minutes — consisting of nine possession changes — ended on two free throws from Walsh. Another pair of shots from the line by Wood put the ‘Cats within a basket of tying the game at 27. With the lead endangered, Smikle went on a five-point scoring run. The streak didn’t end there for Rutgers, as another five points — from a layup by Chyna Cornwell and a three from Smikle — expanded the lead to 37-25. Before the clock ran out, a jumper and three from Brown and Walsh, respectively, cut the Northwestern disadvantage to five.
In the first half, Northwestern shot 6-of-10 on threes, already hitting more than their average per game. These three-pointers kept the ‘Cats in the game, as the Scarlet Knights picked up the scoring as the first 20 minutes progressed.
Cornwell made the first basket of the second half, but Mott immediately responded and Walsh later added a free throw to bring the score to 39-33.
Smikle added a pair of free throws for 23 points in the game. Lau then stole the ball back for the ‘Cats and successfully added a bucket, cutting the deficit to six points at 41-35.
A layup from Walsh allowed for the Wildcats to continue to creep in on the Scarlet Knights. Feeling the lead threatened, Rutgers added five points to the board for a nine-point advantage.
Out of a media timeout, Northwestern and Rutgers each added a basket. Over a minute later, Walsh was brought to the free-throw line, where she made one of two shots. However, as the third quarter closed out, the Scarlet Knights added three more points to which Laya Hartman responded with a three-pointer. Heading into the final ten minutes, Rutgers led Northwestern 51-43.
Keeping up with trends, the fourth quarter opened with back-to-back turnovers. Plus, for the first two minutes, the only scoring came from Mott, who made three of four free throws.
Smikle’s fourth foul of the game put her on the bench, which the Wildcats tried to take advantage of. Wood’s third block in only a little over three minutes gave Northwestern back the ball and led to Mott, once again, earning a trip to the free-throw line, but she missed the advantageous opportunity.
Out of a timeout, the Wildcat dominance of the quarter continued with a three-pointer by Hartman to equalize the score at 51. With the ball in Northwestern’s possession, a charge by Rainey turned over the ball, leading to Rutgers’ first basket of the quarter at the 5:03 mark.
A layup from Mott for her seventh point of the quarter tied the game at 53, but Rutgers quickly retook a four-point lead on a series of free throws. The Rutgers momentum seemed at risk. as Smikle fouled out of the game after Walsh drew a charge on a bang-bang play in transition. On the following Northwestern drive, Mott missed a pair of free throws. Rutgers then put up another basket, going on a 6-0 run since the game was even at 53.
Walsh added another three to make it a one-possession game with less than a minute to go. On a missed Rutgers’ shot, an offensive rebound by Cornwell proved crucial. Keeping the ball in the Scarlet Knights’ hands, Rutgers added another two points on free throws from Carter.
With less than 10 seconds, Walsh sunk her sixth three of the game to bring the score to 61-59. With no timeouts and less than nine seconds on the clock, a win was possible but realistically out of the cards. Another two free throws sealed the win for Rutgers at 63-59.
Closing out a struggling season on a game that could have gone either way, Northwestern gives reason for optimism next year, as the pieces seemed to finally come together.