clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Following up a step forward with several backward, Northwestern encapsulated its season at Penn State

The Wildcats followed up their biggest win of the season with a loss almost as equally discouraging.

@nuwbball / Twitter

Five minutes had passed in Northwestern’s toughest road test of the season at Penn State, and it found itself up 11-7 against a team that fell to No. 9 USC by just one point. Melannie Daley was racking up transition points at will, Casey Harter had just drained a three-pointer and the ‘Cats were finally doing something that they’d struggled to all season: starting fast. Having played a stellar fourth quarter three days earlier to take down Rutgers for its third-straight win, it finally seemed like Northwestern was gaining some momentum.

Expecting NU to capitalize on that start with a win against a quality opponent like PSU might’ve been too much to ask for, but playing competitively shouldn’t have been. After all, Northwestern had done so in each of its other two Big Ten tilts. Granted, Maryland and RU are some of the weaker opponents in the conference, but signs were pointing in the right direction early on against Penn State.

The Wildcats followed up on building their 11-7 lead by... allowing the Nittany Lions to embark on a 21-0 run that ran well into the second quarter. That stretch sucked away any wind NU had in its sails before the game even really developed.

The root of the problem? Turnovers. Again.

Northwestern committed 30 of them on Tuesday, and committed fewer than eight in a quarter only once. Penn State outscored the ‘Cats 42-4 off giveaways. NU actually played decent half-court defense against a PSU team that led the nation in three-point percentage as of Dec. 30, as it outrebounded the Nittany Lions and held them to 36% from deep. However, that didn’t matter because Northwestern’s awful turnover margin meant that it took 15 fewer shots.

Caroline Lau and Casey Harter combined for 13 turnovers, while Hailey Weaver committed four. Northwestern’s ball-handlers were susceptible to these issues throughout the nonconference slate. Although it looked like the Wildcats took a step by winning the turnover battle against Rutgers, progress flew out the window in State College.

This theme of developing a small positive only for it to come crashing down has defined Northwestern’s season, on both a micro and a macro level. Whether it’s the team’s tendency to start slowly, its proneness to opposing midgame runs after strong comeback responses or the fact that it followed up its first Big Ten win with a 40-point loss, NU hasn’t allowed any waves of optimism to develop. That’s because of how swiftly they have crashed.

With a ranked Ohio State team — one that crushed Northwestern twice last year without its starting point guard — coming to Welsh-Ryan Arena, NU isn’t going to have the opportunity for a get-right game after such a demoralizing loss. That puts the Wildcats in a tough predicament.

The goal of a rebuilding season is to watch younger players improve. Northwestern has had some great stories — including Daley’s emergence as a top option and Harter’s quick development into a key piece — but the bulk of its core hasn’t shown significant signs of growth. Lau, who will likely be the floor general through at least 2025-26, is still running into the same problems as a playmaker as she did last year.

Steering the ship in the right direction starts with solidifying baby steps forward on an individual level. The guards need to take better care of the ball to give Northwestern a fighting chance at hanging in with Big Ten competition. Unfortunately, the Wildcats are clearly not there yet, and they don’t seem to be moving much closer.