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Northwestern’s win at Wisconsin showcases its long-term blueprint

The Wildcats got it done in Madison because of two premier outings and more controlled play.

@NUWBball on Twitter.

As Wisconsin enjoyed a 7-0 run in under 1.5 minutes of game action, the circumstances were becoming a familiarly dreary one for Northwestern women’s basketball.

Another back-and-forth affair where the ‘Cats can’t secure a victory. Opponents capitalizing on sloppy basketball. And, crucially, not having resolutions without head coach Joe McKeown, still on the mend from an illness.

Instead, however, the Wildcats flipped a switch halfway through the fourth quarter.

A three from Caileigh Walsh with 5:32 remaining gave NU a lead it wouldn’t relinquish. Four points from Melannie Daley, three impressive rebounds and a layup from Paige Mott later, the Wildcats had closed out a road win in Madison 74-69 — their second win in Big Ten play. For context, that was the team’s total number of conference wins for all of last season.

Northwestern’s successful jaunt up north was unequivocally the result of Walsh — who amassed 19 points and eight rebounds — and Caroline Lau — who posted her third double-double of the season courtesy of 11 points, 11 rebounds and six assists. Both players also had relatively strong nights on the defensive end, with Walsh amassing a block and a steal and Lau corralling those aforementioned offensive rebounds.

It’s not a coincidence that NU’s best play comes with the guard/big tandem thriving. In fact, that’s the formula that the team largely must rely upon if it wants to showcase signs of growth not just in 2024, but also next year.

Beyond Walsh and Lau’s individual efforts, though, Northwestern played one of its more mistake-free games of the season. NU had just 10 turnovers after combining for a hideous 58 against Penn State and Ohio State. So far this year, the ‘Cats are 4-2 when they have 15 or fewer giveaways; that magic number directly correlates with more comprehensive and effective offensive possessions, and fewer easy scores for an opponent.

Part of the reason for that more solidified team basketball very likely could have been a tweak in the team’s rotation. While all five of NU’s starters (Lau, Daley, Casey Harter, Mott and Walsh) played at least 27 minutes, three more players — Maggie Pina, Hailey Weaver and Jasmine McWilliams — logged 16+. Even reserve big Mercy Ademusayo saw seven minutes of action, her most since Dec. 21 at Temple.

Those 58 combined bench minutes weren’t fruitless, either. Pina sank two threes; Weaver had six points, four rebounds, two steals and a block; McWilliams had three rebounds and a steal; and even Ademusayo scored.

Naturally, almost any basketball team will be anchored by its star power — for Northwestern, that’s mostly Walsh, Lau and Daley. But to not only allow those players to rest, but to still perform admirably in their absence, is critical.

Not everything was flawless from a purple-and-white standpoint Wednesday night. NU made just 39% of its shots and had only 13 points off of 13 Wisconsin turnovers. Too many missed opportunities and bad runs of play are still an Achilles’ heel, with or without McKeown on the sidelines.

Another big question: how well can the Wildcats sustain the level of play that we witnessed in Madison, which resulted in only an air-tight win? More adjustments seem necessary against formidable teams in Michigan State, Penn State and Iowa on NU’s upcoming schedule, but how well this is replicated against even Illinois will be a strong reflection.

At the same time, Northwestern’s win in the Kohl Center offered a glimpse of what the team is capable of doing when it gets the most out of its capable roster — largely by getting out of its own way.