A couple of weeks ago, it felt like no one could stop Northwestern women’s basketball (11-4, 9-4 B1G). Led by the “best backcourt in the Big Ten” in senior guard Lindsey Pulliam and junior guard Veronica Burton, the ’Cats were clicking with their solid “blizzard” defense and relying on the duo to make clutch shots down the road. With this game plan and the two stars clicking, Northwestern was a team to solve and beat.
And that’s exactly what Rutgers (7-3, 3-3 B1G) did.
The Scarlet Knights beat the Wildcats Thursday afternoon 70-56 in an evenly matched game that exposed some of Northwestern’s most worrying flaws going into postseason play. With fantastic defense of their own and an unbelievable rebounding performance, Rutgers locked down Northwestern’s dynamic duo and found themselves outpacing the ’Cats throughout the second half.
“One thing that hurt us tonight was we just were not able to penetrate like we normally do, and they took away some of our driving,” Northwestern head coach Joe McKeown said. “It made a big difference, and we played a little more East-West when we wanted to play downhill, and they closed that up on us.”
In the victory, Rutgers saw four players turn in outstanding performances. Senior guard Tekia Mack notched a double-double with 16 points and 13 rebounds, including seven in her offensive zone, while sophomore forward Tyia Singleton led all scorers with 17 points, as well as grabbing seven rebounds of her own. The Scarlet Knights also saw senior guard Arella Guirantes score 15 points, in addition to first-year guard Diamond Johnson’s 14 points, including 4-for-6 from downtown.
With Pulliam and Burton locked down, the ’Cats were led in scoring by senior guard Jordan Hamilton, who scored 13 and went 3-for-4 from downtown. First-year center Paige Mott also had a nice day, scoring a career-high 12 points and nabbing six rebounds, and junior guard Sydney Wood also turned in a great stat line: 12 points, five rebounds and five assists.
At first, the game was a perfect matchup on all fronts, as neither Rutgers nor Northwestern was able to pull away. Although the game started in a footrace with fantastic shooting from Jordan Hamilton, both squads put on the hurt defensively, and neither team was able to score for almost four minutes in the second quarter. Evenly matched, the ’Cats and the Scarlet Knights went into halftime tied at 28.
The second half started largely the same, but the philosophies shifted: Rutgers began to take numerous shots, following them and picking up key offensive rebounds. Meanwhile, Northwestern was clicking and swishing big shots. Rutgers’ strategy, however, proved to be more effective, and they went on a 7-0 run to truly get the edge over the ’Cats. It wasn’t over for Northwestern yet, however, with Rutgers leading just 47-44 going into the last 10 minutes.
That’s when it went rough for the ’Cats, as Rutgers just kept knocking down shot after shot. Northwestern couldn’t retaliate, and the Scarlet Knights went on a stunning 17-3 run over the final 5:30 to ice the game. With long possessions, fantastic step-backs and confidence running high, Rutgers pulled off a gritty, gutsy win, solving one of the best defenses in the country.
“They did a good job moving the ball, they did a good job of getting late in the clock too,” McKeown said. “They made big shots at the end of the clock, able to get into the lane or get on the offensive glass … things that we’ve got to clean up. We're a great team, so we’ve got to be able to handle teams that want to attack the offensive glass.”
What went wrong? Rebounds. With junior center Courtney Shaw still out for the ’Cats with a foot injury, Northwestern has not been able to finish defensive stands, as their opponent picks up their shot and starts anew. This was certainly the case in this game, as Rutgers out-rebounded the ’Cats 36-27, as well as 17-13 in Northwestern’s defensive end.
“Right now without Courtney Shaw, whose probably our best rebounder, we're playing small a lot, and with Rutgers, size hurt us," McKeown said. "We didn't block out, they beat us to loose balls and other things we’ve got to clean up. We're not going to grow anymore."
The ’Cats also struggled without the offensive prowess of Lindsey Pulliam and Veronica Burton, who went a combined 4-for-23 from the floor. The two seem to recognize their critical role, however, as Burton was back out on the floor after the game, perfecting her shot for next time.
Like Burton, the ’Cats will need to keep their eyes on the prize as they go into a tough homestretch before postseason play. With a tough away game against No. 12 Ohio State (12-3, 8-3 B1G) on Sunday and only five games to play in the regular season, this will be the greatest test of the “Best Backcourt” yet.
Who knows? Maybe they’ll rebound.