For Northwestern women’s basketball (13-6, 11-6 B1G) Sunday was almost a perfect day. The ’Cats celebrated their senior class of Lindsey Pulliam, Jordan Hamilton, Brooke Pikiell and Lauryn Satterwhite with framed jerseys and a stellar starting lineup. Welsh-Ryan Arena was open to fans for the first time, with the families of the seniors occupying their own section and cheering the team on. What’s more, the team had a vintage defensive performance, holding No. 8 Maryland (19-2, 15-1 B1G) to just 62 points.
Unfortunately, it was just almost perfect.
The ’Cats dropped a heartbreaker to the Terrapins on Sunday, losing 62-50 in a heartbreaking matchup. While Northwestern matched Maryland in almost every major statistic, including rebounds, assists and steals, an ice-cold scoring drought held the team back from pulling off the upset of the year.
Just a great game today, hard-fought,” Northwestern head coach Joe McKeown said. “Obviously the best team in our league, one of the best teams in the country… Our team had chances in the fourth quarter down four, we missed some free throws and some open shots, but we defended them probably better than anybody has done all year, so I'm proud of that.”
Maryland was led in their effort by a stellar pair of performances from sophomore forward Mimi Collins and sophomore guard Diamond Miller, who each notched a double-double: Collins scored 18 points and nabbed 10 rebounds, while Miller scored 17 and nabbed 10. Sophomore guard Ashley Owusu also shined, scoring 10 points, dishing seven assists and grabbing eight rebounds.
In their final performance at Welsh-Ryan, senior guards Lindsey Pulliam and Jordan Hamilton each had a significant impact on the team; Pulliam scored 13 points, grabbed six rebounds and dished three assists, while Hamilton notched a team-high seven assists and grabbed five rebounds. First-year Anna Morris spoke on the senior core’s impact postgame:
“This season has been tough on and off the court, just with the pandemic and everything,” Morris said. “Having their leadership guiding me through everything… They've never doubted me on the court and they've never really treated me like a freshman or anything, just always looking out for me; Lindsey, if I get the ball, she says “shoot it!” Because she knows that's my shot. So just having them there has really been great this season and obviously like they're all fantastic players.”
While the day belonged to the seniors, it was junior guard Veronica Burton who led the way for the ’Cats, leading the team in both scoring (15 points), rebounds (seven) and steals (five). Junior guard Sydney Wood also had a great game, scoring 10 points and picking up six rebounds and three blocks in the defeat.
Although Northwestern never led in the game, it was a lot closer than the final score would imply. The ’Cats and Terps dueled throughout the first half, with Maryland racing out to a 16-12 lead in the first quarter, and the ’Cats trying to lock down defensively.
Maryland continued to work in the second quarter, driving inside and pulling important paint shots; their prowess, along with Northwestern’s inability to make quality shots, allowed the Terps to pull ahead to a 28-19 lead with 2:23 left in the first half. With their heads down, however, the ’Cats worked the momentum back in their favor with an 8-2 run, marked by a Lindsey Pulliam three-pointer that got Welsh-Ryan buzzing again; at the end of the half, Northwestern only trailed 30-27.
At first, it looked like the ’Cats were going to continue their streak into the second, and began matching every Maryland basket. Through great defensive play and amazing shots, the ’Cats began pulling closer and closer; when Morris scored her first career three-pointer to pull within one, it looked like Northwestern would finally turn the corner.
As has been the case in multiple games, the ’Cats went absolutely frozen in offense, allowing Maryland to go on a 9-0 run over three long minutes. Although the team woke up in the fourth quarter and continued to keep pace with the Terps, the stretch doomed Northwestern, who would eventually lose the game 62-50.
As is always the question, what went wrong for the ’Cats? Poor shooting was the name of the game this time, while Northwestern matched Maryland in almost every category, there was a clear discrepancy in floor shooting: the ’Cats went 19-for-63, good for 30.2%, while the Terps shined going 23-for-58, or 39.7%. Worse for the team was free throw shooting, as Northwestern went a less-than-ideal 10-for-17 from the charity stripe to Maryland’s 14-for-16; the missed opportunities cost the ’Cats in critical moments, who trailed by just seven with 3:30 to go.
“We're streaky, it's no secret,” head coach Joe McKeown said. “We haven't been a great free throw shooting team all year. We have some great free throw shooters, and we're getting better at the end of games; today [was] a little frustrating because we'd knock those down the last couple games in the last couple minutes. But I feel confident going to the postseason.”
Northwestern will now play one more regular season game, a postponed matchup against Michigan (13-3, 8-3 B1G) before heading to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Tournament. From there, the ’Cats will wait anxiously to see their postseason fate, whether playing in the NCAA tournament or the Invitational Tournament. But with the defense clicking again and one of the best senior cores in the country, it’s unlikely that this will spell the end for Northwestern.
“We’ve got to get healthy, and maybe get some people back,” McKeown said on the upcoming postseason. “I think defensively, our effort was phenomenal tonight, but we’ve got to turn people over: we couldn't get easy baskets tonight, and we've been able to do that a lot this year. This is why we've won 11 Big Ten games, but we’ve got to get some easy baskets, we got to find them.”
Maybe the ending will be perfect.