Northwestern first-year center Paige Mott tries a shot during the 'Cats' 74-61 loss to the Hoosiers. Mott saw her first significant playing time this season in the loss. Photo courtesy of Northwestern Athletics

For No. 21 Northwestern women’s basketball (8-3, 6-3 B1G), Sunday’s matchup against No. 16 Indiana (9-3, 7-1 B1G) was a chance to reassert themselves as a top dog in the conference; a ranked win would put the ’Cats over the top, give them their fifth straight win and put them right back in the running for the regular season title. It was the perfect opportunity, and Northwestern knew it.

That’s what made the loss sting even more.

The ’Cats lost to the Hoosiers 74-61 Sunday morning, in a game that was snatched from the jaws of victory. While Northwestern was beating Indiana 49-36 with fifteen minutes to play, the ’Cats went on a scoring slump almost unheard of in recent years, and allowed themselves to be outscored 38-14; 26 of those coming in the 4th quarter.

“Tale of two halves,” Northwestern head coach Joe McKeown said postgame. “Indiana just went on a run, we couldn't defend him in the paint, we did some things to ourselves, missed free throws, didn't block them out, they scored on inbound plays, and-1s… you know, little things that we're really good at usually, that are self-inflicted wounds… we just couldn't finish it. So [a] very frustrating game.”

The Hoosiers were led in their effort by sophomore forward Mackenzie Holmes, who notched a double-double with 22 points and 10 rebounds, and junior guard Grace Berger, who dealt a nice stat line of 14 points, six rebounds and four assists.

Northwestern saw the continuing development of junior guard Veronica Burton, who continued to prove her status as an all-around star with 17 points, five rebounds, four steals and two assists, as well as the skill of Lindsey Pulliam, who put up 15 points and grabbed nine rebounds, just shy of the double-double. The ’Cats also saw two other starters put up double-digit totals, including senior guard Jordan Hamilton (13) and junior guard Sydney Wood (12).

A main storyline of the game was the absence of junior center Courtney Shaw, who was kept out of the game with a lower-body injury; her presence in the paint was missed on both sides. In her stead, first-year forwards Paige Mott and Anna Morris saw extended playing time, but while Mott picked up seven rebounds in her starting debut, she also only put up two points; shy of the 7.6 points per game Shaw has averaged this season.

“It's a great learning experience for both of them,” McKeown said. “I thought they both played really hard, and did a lot of good things for us, so that's a positive step for them to get that kind of experience.”

While the final score was lopsided and the second half was a story of runs, the game started out like an evenly-matched game of checkers; Northwestern in black and Indiana in red. The two teams traded baskets and blows, and posted nearly identical stats through the first few quarters. Burton and Pulliam led the ’Cats in their effort with fantastic shots and play, and at the end of the first, Northwestern was leading the Hoosiers 36-33.

Not complacent with a three-point lead, the ’Cats came running out of the gate on a 13-3 run, and seemed to kick all their starters in gear. Mott was defending the paint well, Hamilton was dazzling with her ball-handling, and Burton and Pulliam were locking down in the backcourt. With fifteen minutes left, the ’Cats led by thirteen.

Of course, this story doesn’t have a happy ending; the ’Cats went absolutely cold following that run, and began to show cracks in their normally stalwart defense. Pushing past Mott and Morris in the paint and picking up fouls along the way, the Hoosiers began to finally punch in their shots and finish plays.

“I think we had a lot of miscues at times within that fourth quarter,” Veronica Burton said postgame. “They were kind of getting it inside more than we wanted that to happen, and we also just weren't forcing as many turnovers. I think they kind of adapted well, and weren't making as many mistakes or making kind of lazy passes that we were able to intercept in the first half. I think they adjusted on that.”

Not helping, of course, was the ’Cats’ inability to finish scoring drives, missing key shots; they went a shocking 3-for-21 from the field in the last fifteen minutes. When all was said and done, Indiana had made up the deficit and doubled it, winning the game with a fantastic fifteen minutes.

The key to this game, as mentioned, was the final fifteen minutes. Northwestern’s inability to make shots, along with a less-than-stellar defense in the clutch, doomed the ’Cats down the stretch. As seen in the first half, the game was best for Northwestern when they were matching the Hoosiers tit-for-tat; if the ’Cats had gone into cruise control, rather than run the car off the highway, perhaps this would be a different writeup.

“Our defensive breakdowns in the fourth quarter were things we’ve got to address, obviously, as we go into this week … and make sure they don't happen again, as far as some of the things like I said,” McKeown said. “So you’ve got to do all the little thing right. We'll address it. Our kids are tough.”

Northwestern now sits at 6-3 in conference play, all but dooming their chances to share the regular season title. While the conference is tougher than ever this year (four teams in AP Top 25), if the ’Cats want to function well in the postseason, they will need to figure out how to stop playing with streaks and fight to the finish. But with Burton and Pulliam still shooting strong, Wood and Hamilton making great plays and the hopeful return of Shaw, there’s a chance this team could still figure this out.

Just a bump in the road to glory.

Only way out is up. Photo courtesy of Northwestern Athletics