After their strongest regular season in years, the end result was the same as last year. On Thursday morning in Indianapolis, Northwestern women’s basketball (16-14, 9-10 B1G) failed to advance past the second round of the Big Ten Tournament in a 68-52 loss to Michigan State (20-10, 10-9 B1G).
The loss is disappointing, and certainly eliminates Northwestern from NCAA Tournament contention. Pessimists will point to Northwestern’s unfortunate seeding - they ended the regular season in a four-way tie for sixth place, but drew the eight seed and a matchup with a team ranked No. 15 in the country earlier in the season. It remains to be seen whether Joe McKeown and company will continue their season in the Women’s NIT.
The turning points of the game came in the third quarter. The Wildcats came out of halftime trailing 39-32, but put together an 8-0 run to take a 40-39 lead. The run, led by Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah (11 pts, 8 reb), was halted when the senior was forced to sit the last five-plus minutes of the quarter due to accumulating too many fouls. Northwestern fell apart without their star, ending the quarter down by 11.
Leading scorer Lindsey Pulliam had her worst performance of the season, contributing just two points and two assists, albeit working hard for six rebounds. Normally a consistent perimeter threat, nothing was working for Pulliam, and Northwestern did not have the talent to bail her out. Jordan Hamilton, who averaged almost 10 points per game throughout the season, also struggled with just three. Abbie Wolf did her best to pick up the slack, leading the Wildcats with 15 points for the second consecutive game (and nailing all of her free throws), but it was not enough.
Continuing their third quarter trends, Northwestern opened the fourth quarter with a turnover that led to an MSU layup. Meanwhile, Michigan State was consistently penetrating the paint and drawing contact. Northwestern did not score until halfway through the fourth quarter, and by that point the game was over.
It is difficult to determine whether this season was a success. Though certainly an improvement over last season, McKeown had lofty expectations: he claimed this would be a top-20 program. It was certainly not, but at the very least, the development of Kunaiyi-Akpanah and Pulliam into elite Big Ten players was fun to watch.
The field for the 64-team Women’s NIT will be announced on the evening of Monday, March 18.