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Northwestern ends its season to a similar tune

Northwestern concluded its season showing progress, but in tiny bursts.

Northwestern v Rutgers Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

When Laya Hartman drained her second three-pointer of the game in the fourth quarter to tie the score at 51 and cap off an 11-0 Northwestern run, the bad memories from the losses that have piled up over the past four months seemed to be exactly that: snapshots from the past. In the first game of the postseason after a rough defensive start, the ‘Cats took a double-digit Rutgers lead and literally wiped the slate clean.

It seemed to fit perfectly with what Joe McKeown has said of his team’s potential in the Big Ten Tournament over the past few weeks, even throughout the tough in-conference losses. While he has acknowledged the team’s shooting struggles, he has also repeatedly noted that the ‘Cats were not a squad that anyone in the conference — even its cream of the crop — would want to face in Minneapolis if they got hot.

Key word: if.

For that five-minute stretch, the ‘Cats showed a glimpse of what McKeown’s vision looks like when “if” becomes “when.” However, as it has almost all year, Northwestern could not put it together for four quarters, and shot itself in the foot with fundamental mistakes that highlight why the team went 2-16 in Big Ten play.

For the most part, the offensive production was there. Caileigh Walsh had one of the best games of her entire career, as she put up 24 points, eight rebounds and hit 6-of-9 threes. Walsh didn’t have to establish herself inside as much as she normally has in her best performances to get good looks from beyond the arc, mainly because Paige Mott drew foul after foul in the paint.

The problem was that Northwestern needed more secondary options down the stretch, especially from its guards. Because Rutgers attacked the paint frequently, it got Walsh in foul trouble early and drew four fouls on Mott by the middle of the third quarter. That prevented McKeown from playing the two bigs together that frequently down the stretch, which in turn clogged up Northwestern’s offense both inside and around the perimeter.

The thing that really exacerbated that issue — especially in the first half — was that Rutgers had Kaylene Smikle on its team and Northwestern did not.

Smikle took full advantage of Northwestern’s poor ball security the last time these two teams met, racking up five steals when Rutgers beat the ‘Cats 62-48 in Piscataway on Feb. 15. On Wednesday, she did the exact same thing by snagging four steals, but also added elite long-range shooting on the other end. The first-year put up 21 points in the first half, and drained four threes on the day.

Plus, in contrast to Northwestern, Rutgers had multiple complementary players shine outside of Smikle. Kai Carter dropped 11 points off the bench even though she suffered an ankle injury in the middle of the game, and Awa Sidibe put up the same total in addition to her three steals and two blocks. Perhaps most importantly, Chyna Cornwell prevented NU from establishing any consistent momentum inside by posting a 15-point, 15-rebound double-double and four blocks.

Many of those blocks came early on, which forced Northwestern to rely on jumpers. That sped up the game’s pace early in the second quarter, which allowed Smikle and the Scarlet Knights to both get out in transition and force Northwestern to play out of control. That was primarily why the ‘Cats found themselves having to climb out of medium-sized deficits throughout the game.

That’s not to say there weren’t bright spots for Northwestern, because the team kept closing the gaps. Walsh and Mott thrived offensively, and Big Ten All-Defense honoree Sydney Wood was a force on the other end with five blocks. Still, NU never seized control of the game for good.

The ‘Cats missed a slew of fastbreak layups, which prevented them from playing with the lead down the stretch. Turning the ball over 20 times also didn’t help. With Smikle playing lights-out in the first half and her supporting cast showing out, those mistakes made it almost impossible for Northwestern to dictate the game, which in turn made it harder to win.

Even when Walsh fouled out Smikle with a gutsy drawn charge on a transition layup with a few minutes left in the fourth quarter, Northwestern wasn’t in control because it still found itself with a foot inside the hole it dug itself in early. It encapsulated the same theme repeated game after game: the ‘Cats couldn’t piece together their runs into a complete performance.

This season was deemed by many to be a rebuilding one coming in, so the fact that this rang true wasn’t a total surprise, especially given Northwestern’s horrible injury luck. Additionally, despite the team’s struggles throughout the year, NU has become more consistent, little by little.

Two weeks ago, Northwestern found itself down two in Piscataway with 4:30 to go, only for the Scarlet Knights to score the final 12 points of the game. On Wednesday, Walsh sank multiple threes down the stretch and brought the ‘Cats within two with under 10 seconds left.

However, Northwestern’s latest loss to Rutgers reinforced the fact that the slate isn’t clean, even if that was the mindset the team entered the Big Ten Tournament with. The Wildcats have many flaws, and they aren’t going to disappear quickly.

Whether it’s a result of the simple mistakes, McKeown’s rotations, the injuries, rough shooting numbers or some combination of all of that, this first-round loss delivered the harsh reality check that the strong culture Northwestern has built around the program in recent years won’t translate to wins by itself without starpower. Establishing a new identity — and executing it consistently — will.