One of the measures of great leaders is how they respond to unexpected change. Do they fold under the new circumstances and blame it on forces outside their control? Or do they roll with the punches, keep fighting against the current and find a way to get the job done?
For Northwestern women’s basketball (11-4, 3-1 B1G), that was the query they were facing when their schedule suddenly changed earlier this week, due to a need to make up games postponed because of COVID-19 concerns. Their scheduled away trip against Illinois was pushed back, and instead, they’d have to take on Rutgers (7-11, 0-6 B1G) – a team that, historically, has had their number in years past.
Like great leaders, however, the ’Cats rose to the challenge, serving up a 68-63 win over their new foes from New Jersey. Senior guard Veronica Burton continued her effort to be recognized as one of the top players in the country, once again stuffing the stat sheet with 18 points, four steals and a whopping nine assists on the night; all while playing the complete 40 minutes, not being subbed out once.
“Any game she's in, you’ve got a chance to win. She's just going to do everything right,” Northwestern head coach Joe McKeown said postgame. "In my opinion, she's the best point guard in college basketball. Somehow, other people don't think so nationwide… some of my colleagues I've known over 25-30 years, so no more Christmas cards. She proves it every night, and she does whatever you have to do to win … there's nobody like her, and we're just lucky to have her here.”
Under Burton’s leadership, the team had a killer night across the board, as five players scored eight points or more: first-year forward Caileigh Walsh (13), senior center Courtney Shaw (11), junior guard Laya Hartman (9) and first-year guard Melannie Daley (8). All four made significant contributions elsewhere on the floor as well, as Shaw posted six rebounds, while Daley and Hartman nabbed three steals apiece.
“[We] create our own energy; it’s literally what we were telling ourselves as soon as we got to shoot around today throughout warm-ups, right before we started the game and throughout the game,” Burton said postgame. “We want to play as hard as we can on the court no matter who's in the stands, because we still represent everybody.”
Rutgers was led in their effort by graduate forward Osh Brown, who had a stellar performance in the paint: 22 points, 16 rebounds. The Scarlet Knights also saw fantastic shooting from sophomore guard Joiya Maddox, who came off the bench to swish a perfect 3-for-3 from downtown and notch 12 points, and senior guard Laiya Petree, who went 3-for-6 from behind the arc to score 11 points.
It wasn't a complete cakewalk for the ’Cats, as they once again struggled out of the gate. Rutgers went up 8-2 in the first quarter after their early three-point shots began to sink, and Northwestern played catch up for the rest of the quarter. While Petree sank another to put the Scarlet Knights up 11-6 with three minutes to play, Burton continued to push the paint, and the ’Cats went to the end of the first quarter down just 11-10.
“We’ve got to get off to better starts,” McKeown said. “We had the same problem with Ohio State. We started slow, we came back in the second quarter. I thought our defense that stretch was really good, our communication was good, and then we started to loosen them up a little bit, got better shots.”
The second quarter began with more tussling between the teams, as the ’Cats and Knights traded shots and found themselves in an offensive battle. After Northwestern went down 17-12, however, Burton took over the floor, driving the lanes to pick up key layups and opening up several deep downtown shots for her teammates.
Picking up four assists and a downtown bucket of her own, Burton led the ’Cats into halftime up 32-25. The team came into the third quarter looking to do more of the same, as Burton set up Walsh for a nice jumper that would give the team their largest lead thus far.
Rutgers refused to go away, however, as the Scarlet Knights matched Northwestern’s 21 third-quarter points with 21 of their own. Keeping their foot on the gas, Burton continued to push pace by feeding an unlikely suspect: Daley, who had been scoreless on the night so far. The senior point guard set up Daley on three separate occasions within two minutes, and it looked like the game was all but over in the fourth quarter.
And then … it happened again. Northwestern went cold from the floor – failing to make a shot for almost six minutes – and Rutgers quietly began staging a comeback with continued dominance behind the three-point line. It came to a head with just over ninety seconds left, when Maddox fired up a deep shot and was fouled by Burton on the jump, giving Rutgers a rare four-point play and a chance to finish the climb.
Just when the team looked lost, Daley – in a play that looked incredibly similar to her senior co-part's – finished the job, picking up arguably the biggest points of the night. On a nice play outside the line, she picked up a steal, broke her way down the lane, and scored one last layup that put the game away for good. A steal from Hartman later, the ’Cats cruised back into the win column with a 68-63 win.
“I think that was a huge growth step for her, honestly, to not let her previous shots kind of get in her head and stuff like that,” Burton said of Daley postgame. “So I was definitely really proud of her, and she really helped us down and the end of the dumb stretch.”
What went right this time for the ’Cats? Simply put, they found a way to play as a team. Burton certainly played the role of facilitator with her nine assists, but several other players made key contributions with important points and stellar defensive play – a trend, they hope, they can carry into the late season.
“This team right now is very young, very inexperienced,” McKeown said. “It doesn’t surprise me, but it impresses me that [Burton] puts this team on her back every day, and she’s trying to make everybody better. Players that have never been in this environment, this situation, she just guides them through. Those leadership qualities are coming out right now.”
Great leaders can thrive under any sort of pressure, and there’s plenty of great leaders on this squad. Let’s see what gets thrown at them next.