Cool, calm and collected. That would be the best way to describe Northwestern women’s basketball’s (10-3) crucial 69-57 win against No. 11 Ohio State (10-2) Monday night. The ‘Cats seem to be on a roll after coming off a dramatic road win against Iowa last week, and aren’t showing any signs of slowing down.
“I thought it was our best defensive effort of the year. Especially against a team that’s capable of scoring 90 points,” Coach McKeown said. “A lot of credit to everybody on our team, they just kept working and stayed connected.”
Ohio State’s offense, ranked ninth in the country, has scored 78 or more points in nine of their 11 previous games. Northwestern knew the offensive muscles the Buckeyes like to flex in their running up the score, but approached the game with a clear plan.
“We knew what we had to do against Ohio State, we knew they like to get a lot of points on the board,” junior point guard Veronica Burton said. “But we knew if we could put the pressure on them, get defensive stops and keep the score low, we knew we could get this win.”
The ‘Cats set the tone from the very beginning, grabbing a 5-point lead in the first five minutes of the game. Northwestern held Ohio State to eight points in the first quarter, the fewest the Buckeyes have scored against a team so far this season. Strong defensive efforts from freshman forward Anna Morris and junior point guard Veronica Burton helped keep Northwestern’s lead while the ‘Cats kept the score low to finish 32-25 at the half.
Burton had one of her best nights of the season, posting her third career double-double with 20 points and 15 rebounds. Making an impact on both ends of the floor, her nine assists were just one short of her first ever triple-double as she led the team in stats and leadership.
“Come on, energy! We need another stop, let’s go!” Burton yelled down the court. A short run from the Buckeyes to start the second half had brought the score within two points, the closest they had been all game. Junior forward Dorka Juhasz and junior forward Aaliyah Patty continued to pressure the ‘Cats offensively. Undeterred, Burton assisted senior guard Jordan Hamilton to make a three, igniting the momentum the ‘Cats were looking for.
“We know they’re a good team, it’s a game of rounds and we knew that. We just had to stay poised. Remaining calm in those situations and not folding, that’s our biggest thing,” Burton said.
The leadership from Northwestern’s upperclassmen was evident, as their top scorers consisted of the usual suspects. Senior guard Lindsey Pulliam secured her first double-double of the season, with 15 points and 10 rebounds. Hamilton matched her efforts, to score 13 points for the ‘Cats. Last year’s successful season seems to aid the team as veteran leaders flex their experience, remaining calm even while the pressure is mounting.
Closing last week’s game against Iowa with a clutch finish and holding the lead against top-ranked Ohio State on Monday, it seems like the ‘Cats know what they’re doing; they’ve been in these tough situations before. Upperclassmen leaders are making their impact and younger starters are beginning to see how they fit in, and Morris describes how she finally feels like has settled into the team’s chemistry.
“I’ve placed an emphasis on just playing my role, and not trying to be anything that I’m not,” Morris said.
Morris also emphasized her faith in Northwestern’s defense, led by the outstanding performances from Burton every single game: “She’s kind of our quarterback. She really has to be level-headed to kind of keep our team stable in times of stress. As her teammate, that’s really fun to play with, just having that stability on the court … she really is the backbone of our team and she does a really good job embracing that role.”
Burton’s getting national attention too, as the junior is second in the country for steals per game, averaging 4.4 steals and never skipping a beat against another team’s offense. Her pressure Monday night bumped her up in the record books for second career high steals after 4 against Ohio State brought her to a total of 238 in her college career. Contributing to the scoreboard and on the sidelines seems to be her strategy for leading the ‘Cats to a win.
“Special player, special person too,” Coach McKeown said. “She has this leadership quality, she doesn’t have to yell and scream, she does it by her actions. That’s what our players respect so much.”
Even after this performance, being the highest scorer for Northwestern and falling just one assist short from her first triple-double, Burton’s reaction remains apathetic.
“Yeah, I mean I’m happy. A win’s a win, that’s what it comes down to,” Burton said. “Obviously stats are great, but I didn’t really care about all that if we win.”
The ‘Cats will look to continue this momentum in East Lansing against Michigan State on Sunday 2 p.m. CT. With a statement win under their belt, one of the best point guards in the country and a team finding their stride, it seems like Northwestern women’s basketball is a team to beat again.
Just in time.