January in Evanston is an interesting month. There will be days where it seems the sun will not escape its perch behind the clouds, leading to large cold spells that seemingly can’t be broken. Sometimes, the sun will emerge and create a dazzling 40-degree afternoon in which students can be seen throwing frisbees in the brown grass. And of course, there is the occasional blizzard that wipes out cars and puts the town at its mercy.
After nearly a month of playing like a blizzard, Northwestern women’s basketball (10-4, 2-1 B1G) finally hit a cold spell. The Wildcats took a tough loss to Ohio State (11-3, 3-2 B1G) Sunday afternoon, dropping the game by a large margin of 74-61. In a game that saw the ’Cats trailing by as many as 19 in the third quarter, Northwestern simply couldn’t get its offense going against a lethal Buckeye shooting attack, and suffered their first loss after a six-game win streak.
“Today we just came out and played on our heels, with no great answers,” Northwestern head coach Joe McKeown said postgame. “We’ve got a great team: tough, hard-nosed kids [that] compete, [and] Ohio State, the press hurt us early. We struggled a little bit against it, and we missed layups, you know, is one of those half times they hit a shot at the buzzer… Disappointing, but I know my team, and we'll fight back hard this week. We’ll go from there.”
The Buckeyes were led in their effort by junior guard Jacy Sheldon, who picked up 20 points in the victorious effort, and junior forward Rebeka Mikulášiková, who notched a double-double with 16 points and 12 rebounds. Senior guard Taylor Mikesell also had a nice game, with 13 points and five assists.
On the other side of the floor, the only Wildcat to break double-digits was senior guard Veronica Burton, who continued her recent dominant effort with a stuffed statline: 16 points, eight rebounds, six steals and five assists. Behind Burton were first-year guard Jillian Brown, who quietly turned in nine points, seven rebounds and four assists, and sophomore forward Paige Mott, who notched nine points of her own and three blocked shots.
While the ’Cats were defined by a hard cold spell in the third quarter, the game started white hot for both teams. The Buckeyes raced out to a 7-0 lead on the back of Mikulášiková – who scored all seven points – but the ’Cats clawed their way back with several players making buckets, punctuated by a nice drive and finish by Burton in the paint.
The first half continued with several runs for both teams: the Buckeyes went on another 7-0 run to close the first quarter; the ’Cats pushed to cut the deficit to just three points multiple times in the second half; Burton and Mikesell traded downtown shots; it was a back-and-forth battle, and going into halftime, it looked although as it would be another hard scoring run for the ’Cats.
“We take a lot of pride in our defense,” Burton said. “So when we’re not really connecting on that end, it’s hard for often to kind of get going, we’re not really getting easy looks in transition… that’s really a big flaw of ours, especially when we’re at home, we tend to do that… we’ve got to execute it on the floor.”
Unfortunately, it was not the second half the ’Cats wanted, as they suffered long scoring droughts; the team went almost five minutes without scoring to start the second half, and almost six without making a shot from the floor. It was the opportunity the Buckeyes had been looking for, as they kept pushing and quietly built up a double-digit lead. Northwestern never found their footing again, and at the end of the third, they had been outscored 23-11 enroute to a 56-37 Ohio State lead.
“We don’t want to get into the habit of just settling,” Burton said postgame. “We’ve got to be able to knock down those shots, because I think we are very capable of hitting from the three point line… we need to find different ways of getting into the paint, attacking, creating easy looks. We need some easy baskets when the ball is not dropping.”
By that point, it was all but a formality for the Buckeyes, who cruised to a 74-61 win following continued dominance from Mikulášiková and Mikesell.
There wasn’t much to analyze after the fact: the ’Cats simply couldn’t keep up with the ferocious Ohio State offense, thanks to long scoring droughts in the second half. While Veronica Burton continued to play with energy, there needed to be someone who picked up the pace as a secondary threat, similar to how first-year Melanie Daley did against Iowa, or how Courtney Shaw has done multiple times in her career.
“They’ve played together a long time now, and played on championship teams, NCAA tournament teams, top-25 teams their whole career,” McKeown said of the team. “[With] Veronica, they just play off each other… Burton is in charge of the floor, so I think she knows where she is all the time in transition. So it’s a pretty good one-two punch.”
This isn’t a major concern for McKeown yet, however, as he noted postgame that due to an internal outbreak of COVID-19, the ’Cats have not had much chance to practice recently. Both McKeown and Burton noted that once they get back into the gym and retool some plays, they believe they’ll be back at championship caliber.
“I think we have a lot to reflect on after that game, individually and as a team,” Burton said. “I think it comes down to our preparation. I think we’ve got to lock in and practice… we practice how we play, and I don’t think we’ve had our best couple practices, so it comes down to that. I think we’ve got to come together as a unit, and I think we will, it just comes down to walking in, focusing, and not taking anything lightly.”
While it’s still freezing in Evanston, the sun may return to the sky soon enough; hopefully in time for the Wildcats’ game against Illinois (6-8, 1-2 B1G) Thursday night.