Northwestern junior guard Veronica Burton looks for the lane during Sunday's win over Penn State. Burton led all scorers with 19 points, and led the 'Cats through several tough spells offensively. Photo courtesy of Northwestern Athletics

Northwestern junior guard Veronica Burton may be the most underrated player in the Big Ten. Although she won the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year last year, she has taken her game to another level this year, with fantastic shots, unbelievable defensive plays and unbelievable work in transition, she may be the piece the ’Cats rely on to take them far in the Big Ten Tournament.

Sunday’s game may have been a test of that, as No. 21 Northwestern women’s basketball (7-2, 5-2 B1G) took another win at Penn State Sunday afternoon, beating the Lady Lions 67-50. The ’Cats were led in their effort by a fantastic performance by Burton, who led all scorers with 19 points, as well as 4 assists and 5 steals to round out the day.

“She does whatever you need your team to do to win,” Northwestern head coach Joe McKeown said. “She scores, she plays great defense, she broke their press … she does everything, and it's what makes her a great player. Just really proud of her defensive efforts.”

Despite the ’Cats having a less-than-optimal shooting performance, going 3-for-16 from downtown and 6-for-14 from the free-throw line, Burton was able to steadily pace the ’Cats with her fantastic shots, going 7-for-13 from the field with two three-pointers. Also helping Northwestern was junior guard Sydney Wood, who scored 13 and nabbed seven rebounds while going 6-for-9 shooting, and Lindsey Pulliam, who scored 17 despite going 8-for-23 from the field.

Penn State was led in their effort by senior forward Johnasia Cash, who scored 14 points, grabbed eight rebounds and led the Lady Lions on defense with three steals and one block. Penn State also saw a decent performance from sophomore guard Makenna Marisa, who scored 12 points.

The game was not a perfect affair for either team. While Northwestern was able to lead for a majority of the game, it was an ugly affair from the beginning, with both teams turning the ball over frequently and seeing poor-shooting all around; after scoring the opening bucket, Northwestern went over four minutes without scoring. Burton brought the ’Cats out of this stretch, however, going 3-for-4 from the field and assisting on all Northwestern points. At the end of the first, it was 14-10 ’Cats.

Penn State then operated a full-court defense, pushing against the top of the point and generating turnovers galore for the ’Cats. Despite having multiple key fast breaks, however, the Lady Lions were mired with shooting woes of their own, and weren’t able to take advantage. Northwestern stayed on top, and once they were able to get into the zone, found their stroke again, ending the quarter with a 9-0 run to lead Penn State 32-18 at the half.

“We turned the ball over way too much to be considered a great team,” McKeown said. “When we don't turn the ball over, we're pretty good, and it hurt us tonight. Our defense, I think, was real solid.”

Northwestern never lost their shooting again, as they were able to go tit-for-tat with the Lady Lions full-court press and gain a key advantage within the arc. Despite going 0-for-5 from downtown in the second half, the ’Cats moved the ball well around the paint, shooting 55% from two. After taking a 43-22 lead in the third quarter, Northwestern was able to coast for the rest of the game, winning the game 67-50 in the end.

“Hard fought road win in the Big Ten really,” McKeown said. “Penn State plays 40 minutes, they pressure you …  just getting into the heart of the Big Ten. So every game is a dogfight, and you’ve just got to be ready, especially on the road.”

Northwestern junior guard Sydney Wood grabs the ball against Penn State. The game was a grinding affair for both teams, but Northwestern was able to claw it out. Photo courtesy of Northwestern Athletics

A couple of key trends emerged for the ’Cats. The first, of course, was the continuing dominance of Burton, whose speed and defensive prowess really opened up the lanes for the ’Cats in key stretches, along with her ability to finish shots during scoring droughts; this allowed players like Pulliam and Wood to operate on their own terms and find their own shots.

The other note, as previously mentioned, was the great work of the ’Cats from within the arc. A key contributor to this was junior forward Courtney Shaw, who picked up a game-high 12 rebounds, including a whopping six under her own basket. With the ’Cats missing a true sharpshooter from three this year, great rebounding performances are critical in gritty games, and it seems Northwestern may recognize this.

“I think for us to be successful, she has to have a presence defensively, and on the glass and turning some of those offensive rebounds into buckets for teammates,” McKeown said. “I thought she did all those things tonight; made a lot of hustle plays … She was really aggressive tonight. I'm happy for her too, she's been working really hard.”

Junior forward Courtney Shaw goes behind the back for a shot. Shaw, working well in the paint, played a critical role in the 'Cats' win over the Lady Lions, nabbing 12 rebounds. Photo courtesy of Northwestern Athletics

The ’Cats will now return to Welsh-Ryan Arena for two key games: a rivalry matchup against Illinois, and a critical ranked game against No. 18 Indiana. If they can continue great shots from within the arc, and maybe continue to work through Burton, maybe the ’Cats can claw their way back into the top 20.