In the past couple of years, Northwestern’s women’s basketball team (16-11, 8-8 B1G) has reached heights that proved them NCAA contenders. As former 2020 B1G champions and a 2021 NCAA tournament team, the seventh seed in the Big Ten may be a bit of an underdog compared to their not-too-distant past.
Even so, there are still two things that this team has in common with its predecessors: one, they all have a chance to prove themselves in the B1G tournament, and two, they all have senior guard Veronica Burton. With those two things on their side, the ’Cats can elevate their March Madness chances this week if they play their cards right.
The Starring Cast
Leading the charge for Northwestern is three-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and 2022 Naismith DPOY semifinalist, Veronica Burton. Sure she can shoot; she’s top ten in most conference categories. But you don’t earn a nickname like the Backcourt Burglar for your ability to make shots alone. Ranking first in steals, sixth in assists, and fifth in assist/turnover ratio in the country means that Burton will rob you blind and then make sure somebody scores in transition, if she doesn’t just take it herself.
As phenomenal as Burton has played, she can’t carry the ’Cats alone. Her supporting cast has come on strong over the past couple of months, especially her young costars. First-year guards Melannie Daley and Jillian Brown have put in productive minutes. Daley shoots as well as Burton percentage wise, has the third-most made field goals, and is tenacious on defense.
Brown, a starter for 23 of NU’s 27 games, is the team’s fourth leading scorer and is always around the ball with 90 rebounds, 48 assists and 23 steals. Brown has also had double-digit scoring efforts in five of the last seven games.
As for the veterans, junior guard Laya Hartman has blossomed into a bonafide three-point threat, leading the team by shooting nearly 40%. Senior forward Courtney Shaw has been a force in the paint, notching the third most rebounds in the Big Ten and averaging over 8 points per game.
Despite plenty of individual success, Northwestern has been shaky over the past two weeks, splitting four games since their double overtime win versus then #4 Michigan (13-4 B1G, 3rd seed). Most recently, the loss at Nebraska (11-7, 6th seed) in the season finale exposed some of the flaws in Northwestern’s game.
The Cornhuskers, a team that is not known for shooting threes, shot lights out beyond the arc, and Northwestern’s “Blizzard” defense couldn’t keep pace. Nebraska shot an incredible 3rd quarter, missing only 4 shots out of 19 taken from the floor and sinking 5 threes, to pull away in a game that was close at the half.
Furthermore, when Northwestern is out-rebounded, as they were by 12 against the Huskers, they lose with few exceptions. It’s tough to win games when you can’t get the ball after missed shots.
The Opposing Scouting Report
On Thursday, Northwestern will face a Minnesota (7-11 B1G, 10th seed) team that beat Northwestern on February 11th. The game was rescheduled last minute due to a COVID-19 pause, but the Golden Gophers were ready to play… unlike the Wildcats that day.
Minnesota outshot Northwestern on the 11th, 44% to 38.8% for FG and 52.6% to 30.8% from deep, despite Burton putting up a game leading 27 points. No other Wildcat had more than 12 while three Golden Gophers posted at least 18 points, including junior guard Sara Scalia who is now coming off of a 32 point final game and is second in the country in made three-pointers.
If the Wildcats survive Minnesota, they will have the opportunity to continue their revenge tour against B1G co-champion #12 Iowa (14-4 B1G, 2nd seed) on Friday. Barely a month ago, Northwestern lost a devastating overtime game to the Hawkeyes after the Wildcat’s apparent game winning shot was wiped off at the end of regulation.
Even though Northwestern beat Iowa in their first meeting and nearly won the second, this is a different Hawkeye team than then. Sophomore guard Caitlin Clark, the nation’s leading scorer, has hung more than 38 points on Michigan twice and led Iowa to more than 87 total points in eight of their last nine games. They are the best shooting and highest scoring team in the Big Ten, but also posted their lowest and second lowest conference scores against this very Northwestern team.
So what can Northwestern do to win given the seemingly bleak outlook? One, spread the ball around. The ’Cats thrive when they can rely on more than just Burton. Two, rebound. They are in the bottom five for rebounding in almost every category. Last, play their defense with confidence. Being the fifth best defense in points allowed, blocking the most shots and snagging the most steals is not a fluke.
Currently sitting as the bubble team of all bubble teams, Northwestern needs to win at least two, probably three, games to make the NCAA tournament. Two wins would be enough to secure an NIT bid, but the ’Cats would prefer to play in the Big Dance for the second straight year.
And if there’s one thing Wildcats love to do, it’s dance.