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Led by Caroline Lau and a defensive resurgence, Northwestern flashed progress against Wisconsin

Northwestern’s best win of the year addressed almost every weakness it showed on Wednesday night.

Northwestern Athletics

Heading into Sunday, Northwestern had the worst defensive rating in the entire nation.

Three days earlier, it had just surrendered 110 points to No. 3 Iowa in a game that received more attention for a certain visiting player entering the building than for the home team. With the exception of its November loss at Notre Dame, NU hadn’t given up that much offense over 40 minutes in almost 20 years.

Back at Welsh-Ryan Arena against Wisconsin, the Wildcats responded with a fury. Nearly all of Northwestern’s prolonging issues turned into decisive positives in its 26-point win. NU completed a season sweep of the Badgers, and separated itself from the bottom of the Big Ten.

Northwestern’s defensive performance headlined that answer. What better way is there to bounce back from surrendering 110 points than to hold the next team to 43? The ‘Cats held the Badgers to 25.8% shooting from the field, which NU hasn’t done in a conference game in nearly three years. It hasn’t held a Big Ten team to 43 points or fewer in a regular season game in almost six seasons.

Paige Mott and Joe McKeown both noted postgame that a low post double-team on 6-foot-4 Wisconsin forward Serah Williams lit that spark. Averaging 17.5 points and 10.4 rebounds a contest, Williams has been a double-double machine. She notched her ninth in 10 games on Sunday, but Northwestern held her to a 3-of-12 shooting clip and forced six turnovers. Caileigh Walsh and Paige Mott limited UW’s star without plunging into foul trouble, which prevented the Badgers from developing any momentum.

That forced Wisconsin to look outside for most of its production. However, Northwestern’s guards shined with their rotations, which helped limit the Badgers to a staggering 4-of-26 mark from beyond the arc. Caroline Lau attributed that success to frequent communication across the perimeter, which she cited as Northwestern’s biggest improvement from its loss to Iowa.

Speaking of Lau, she followed up a 1-of-7 shooting performance against the Hawkeyes with a career day. En route to a career-high 24 points, the floor general did not miss any of her nine shots (four of which came from three-point land). She added five rebounds and six assists to go along with that.

By attacking the hoop early, Lau propelled Northwestern to the quick first-quarter start it had been desperately seeking. More importantly, though, it opened up the floor both for herself and her teammates. Defenders began giving her room to shoot from deep in the second half, and she made them pay. Additionally, the attention Lau drew opened up paint opportunities for Mott and Walsh, who combined for 31 points and scored 18 of those in the second half.

It was a stellar, all-around performance that marked another key checkpoint in Lau’s development as a sophomore. Amid a rough season, she didn’t just show glimpses of eventual point guard stardom on Sunday. She embodied it for 36 minutes on both ends of the floor.

Lau has quietly become Northwestern’s best long-range threat. She’s now shooting at a 37.1% clip from deep on a little over three attempts a game, adding a layer to NU’s offense that it didn’t have in 2022-23.

Of course, things are far from perfect in Evanston. Northwestern is still six games under .500, and it hasn’t consistently displayed the improvement that many looked for with a returning young core. But, Sunday’s response was as clear a sign as NU has shown during the post-Veronica Burton era, and that’s cause for optimism. With nine regular season games left, the next step is stringing those signs of development together, even if it doesn’t translate to wins.