Hailey Weaver takes the shot against Loyola in 2021. She'll have to step up this year on defense to help the Wildcats reestablish their identity. Photo by Maren Kranking/North by Northwestern.

The ’Cats are being called to the court. After stooping to their lowest performance in the past nine seasons just last year, Northwestern women’s basketball (2022: 9-21, 2-16 B1G) will be tasked with proving they belong in this year’s Big Ten Tournament. But, if the ’Cats want any shot at redemption, they must first reevaluate the soul of their team – and it all starts in the shoes.

At 5’11”, guard Sydney Wood left the ’Cats with massive shoes to fill after she graduated last season. A team captain who logged 991 minutes, Wood led the charge in keeping the defense above water, finishing with the most steals (75) and blocks (38) on the team. Wood's tenacity on the court named her to the second Big Ten All-Defensive Team of her career and helped Northwestern rank 9th in defensive Big Ten play despite its painful 21 losses. Wood was never alone though: her partners in crime included guard Kaylah Rainey who recorded the team’s second-highest steals (50) and forward Courtney Shaw who totaled 62 defensive rebounds and 11 blocks. Without these veterans to marshal the defense, the ‘Cats will now have to turn toward other lifelines — most likely their offense.

Northwestern is putting most of its eggs in the attacking end of the basket this year. The ’Cats are adamant not to repeat their disappointing offensive performance last season when they ranked last in B1G three-point percentage with 26.7% and second-to-last in B1G offensive scoring with an average deficit of -7.4 points. The team’s season culminated in a first-round exit from the 2023 Big Ten Tournament after a loss to Rutgers, forcing Wood, Shaw and Rainey to hang up their jerseys early.

“We couldn’t shoot last year. So, every time we talk recruiting, which is every day, the main focus is we got to shoot,” says Head Coach Joe McKeown.

A jack-of-all-trades, Wood shot 301 points and assisted 83 baskets last season, falling just short of Rainey’s admirable 93 assists. Meanwhile, Shaw recorded the team’s second-highest offensive rebounds (58) and contributed 149 points overall. In the absence of these players, third-year forward Caileigh Walsh, with her towering 6’3” stature and shooting ability, will have to put her best foot forward to hold the offense together in the alumni’s stead.

Fortunately, the Northwestern player has a promising future. Walsh is fresh off of a breakout season during which she led the ’Cats in scoring nearly all year with a total of 362 points: a 74 percent increase from her first season. Her 39.3% field goal shooting accuracy allowed her to score 20 points in four games. Walsh will also look for support from her captains: fourth-year forward Paige Mott, second-year starting point guard Caroline Lau and third-year guard Jasmine McWilliams who shot 52.7%, 35.1% and 28.6% from the field, respectively. Still, scraping together a mere two wins in Big Ten play last year, Northwestern’s record exposed a gaping hole in its offense. A designated sharpshooter was nowhere to be found.

An integral part of the solution will be graduate transfer Maggie Pina. The former Boston University player hit an impressive 29 or more three-pointers during each of her four college seasons, totaling 186 made threes. Her credentials suggest she is the star three-point shooter Northwestern needs on its roster. As McKeown says, “she’s not going to play any defense but she’s going to make shots.”

Alongside Pina, an additional three pairs of new kicks will step onto the court. The first-year recruits: guard Casey Harter, forward Crystal Wang and forward Rachel Mutombo, will contribute youthful energy and depth to the team’s roster. Harter, a four-year varsity player and two-year captain, solidified her impressive high school career averaging 16.1 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game, resulting in first-team all-region honors. An equally skilled shooter, Wang averaged 10.2 points and helped her team rank No. 1 nationally. Nearer to the basket, Mutombo will collect any missed shots with her post-play and rebounding ability. Mutombo’s unique strength and toughness that named her MVP freshman season and WCAC Honorable Mention her senior year is projected to bolster Northwestern’s offense.

Just like any quality shoe, though, everything in basketball must come in pairs. The ’Cats will have to invest as much time – if not more – into their defense as their offense if they want to regain a strong, balanced foothold in the Big Ten rankings. Players like Walsh, Mott and Lau will have to supplement their offensive shooting game with equally impressive defense. The team will also rely on third-year guard Hailey Weaver to further expand upon her defensive role last season, having nicked steals at a rate of 4.5 per 40 minutes on the court, totaling 33 steals in just 28 games. Any adjustments made in Northwestern’s defense will inevitably be tried in the coming 2023-24 season.

The ’Cats are already lacing up their kicks in preparation for the long journey ahead of them. Northwestern is scheduled to contest against 18 Big Ten foes including #3 Iowa (31-7, 15-3 B1G), #7 Ohio State (28-8, 0-0 B1G), #14 Maryland (28-7, 15-3 B1G) and in-state rival #23 Illinois (22-10, 11-7 B1G), four opponents that delivered significant blows to the ’Cats last season. The team will also be given the chance at sweet revenge when it faces Rutgers twice, one game at home and the other away. Northwestern’s remaining 11 non-conference games will be a welcome break from the demanding season awaiting it.

“We carved out a brutal schedule, which I want to challenge our team with,” McKeown says. “So hopefully, by the time the Big Ten hits, we’ll be ready.”

All eyes are on the Northwestern women’s basketball team as it enters the 2023-24 season having just fallen from grace. With at least 11 of 15 players returning and the addition of three first-year recruits, Northwestern must step into its shoes and take control of the narrative. If their sharp shooting and agile defense prevail, who knows, the ’Cats might just prove to have nine lives.

Thumbnail photo by Maren Kranking/North by Northwestern.