Defense wins games, but it can’t do it alone.
On Monday night, the Nebraska Cornhuskers (14-9, 6-6 B1G) defeated the Northwestern Wildcats (8-15, 1-11 B1G) with a 78-66 final score amid a strong defensive showing and poor shooting performance from the ’Cats.
Third-year forward Paige Mott, the third-leading scorer on the team and a major force in the paint, had a tough start to the game, racking up two fouls within the first 36 seconds and another before the first quarter ended. Despite her rocky start, Mott extended her streak of double-digit scoring to six straight games. In just 14 minutes of play, Mott put up a team-high 13 points, shooting 60% from the field and 70% from the free throw line.
Graduate student forward Courtney Shaw was another integral member for the ’Cats on both sides of the ball, scoring 12 points, grabbing five rebounds and recording a season-high four steals. Graduate student guard Sydney Wood also finished the game with 12 points, while snatching up three steals and recording two blocks.
The game began with Nebraska, hot from the outset, pulling away to a 30-15 lead by the end of the first quarter. The Cornhuskers were deadly from beyond the arc, shooting 75% from the three-point stripe in the first period of play, and also dominated the quarter in the paint, grabbing 12 rebounds as a team to Northwestern’s six.
The ’Cats, on the other hand, struggled offensively in the first frame, shooting 33.3% from the field and failing to finish under the basket, missing five of six layups. On the other end of the court, their defense often felt lacking in energy, allowing Nebraska to keep a steady lead throughout the quarter.
The second quarter, in a marked shift, was a defensive frenzy, with Nebraska converting on just two of 14 shots from the field and Northwestern on four of 16. The ’Cats matched the Cornhuskers with 12 rebounds and recorded four steals and three blocks in the second period of play, but continued offensive difficulties kept the team from shrinking Nebraska’s lead by more than a few points.
These scoring struggles continued into the second half, with Northwestern putting up just nine points in the third quarter and shooting a dismal 16.7% from the field. Nebraska extended their lead to 56-34 by the end of the third quarter, capped off by back-to-back threes from the Cornhuskers to round out the period.
Enter the fourth-quarter ’Cats. Shaw put Northwestern on the board first with a layup, drew the shooting foul, and hit her free throw. The ’Cats immediately jumped into a full-court press, Shaw snatching up a steal and converting it into a layup, assisted by fourth-year guard Kaylah Rainey, to give Northwestern a quick five points to start the quarter.
The momentum built from there as the ’Cats put on a defensive show where they always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. Midway through the quarter, Northwestern forced four Nebraska turnovers in under a minute of play to go on a 9-0 run, closing the gap to seven points with a clean jumper from Wood.
Ultimately, however, the ’Cats were unable to shrink the deficit any further. The final four minutes of the game become a mix of fast-paced, aggressive play and the inevitable stoppages brought on by that aggressiveness. Northwestern and Nebraska traded fouls and free throws, Northwestern shooting 16 and Nebraska 25 in the fourth quarter alone.
While Northwestern wasn’t able to pull it off this time, their energetic, tough defensive showing bodes well for the rest of their season. The ’Cats have proven they can shut it down on defense, but now it becomes a matter of turning their stops into scoring opportunities.
“The challenge for us was to convert off those turnovers,” Northwestern head coach Joe McKeown said. “We had a lot of momentum and we just couldn’t finish at times, and left some things on the table.”
The ’Cats will face #8 Maryland (19-5, 10-3 B1G) at home this Thursday night, where their defensive prowess will have to be in full force against a team that shoots 43.7% from the field and boasts the third-highest turnover margin in the B1G.
“We’re really close to being really good,” McKeown said.
At this point in the season, the ’Cats need to shed that “really close.” To finish out their conference play and go into the B1G tournament strong, Northwestern needs to be really good, right now.
Thumbnail photo by Maren Kranking/North by Northwestern