Alas, the road warriors’ luck had to run out eventually.
Northwestern (21-15, 9-9 B1G) was never able to get its offense going in a 56-42 loss to Arizona (24-13, 7-11 PAC-12) in the WNIT championship game. Despite having overcome multiple double-digit second half deficits earlier in the tournament, the Wildcats couldn’t replicate their late-game heroics after falling behind by 19 in the third quarter.
After an opening sequence where Veronica Burton (16 PTS) opened the scoring with a three on the Wildcats’ first possession and Arizona’s Aari McDonald (19 PTS, 7 REB) put up her first points of the match, both offenses stagnated. Neither team managed to pull away in the first quarter due in part to a combined thirteen turnovers for both sides. For Northwestern, the sloppy play was exacerbated by a putrid 24% field goal percentage in the first, but Arizona couldn’t capitalize on a strong 47% clip.
Arizona began to pull away in the second, riding the hot hand of forwards Cate Reese (13 PTS, 9 REB) and Tee Tee Starks (12 PTS) to open up an eight point lead at the under 8 media timeout.
At the same time, Arizona coughed the ball up 12 times in the first half; unfortunately for Northwestern, Burton, Lindsey Pulliam (14 PTS, 10 REB), and Jordan Hamilton (3 PTS) could not generate any offensive rhythm in the first half. Centers Abbie Wolf (3 PTS) and Abi Scheid (6 REB) were ineffective down-low, going a combined 0-5 from the field. Arizona took a 30-17 lead at halftime as Northwestern scored only five points in the second quarter.
Northwestern shot 22.2% from the field, led by Pulliam’s 3-12 effort. Arizona surprisingly dominated the rebounding game, taking eight more boards than Northwestern; outside of Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah’s (4 PTS, 11 REB) five rebounds, Arizona’s post players dominated near the glass. It appeared that once again, the ‘Cats would have to hit a higher gear in the second to pull out another uphill victory.
Pulliam stayed to the script with one handed floater to start the next half, but Arizona’s offense exploded to a 18 point lead behind five quick points from McDonald. Led by Pulliam, Northwestern rebounded to cut the lead to 13, but Arizona’s offense willed them buckets, especially inside. Northwestern was losing in the little games; Arizona excelled in offensive rebounding, fast-break points, and shot selection. By the end of the third, Arizona had a sixteen point lead, a seemingly-insurmountable total given Northwestern’s offensive woes.
Arizona closed out the fourth with ease, never taking their foot off the pedal to win their first WNIT tournament championship, 56-42.
In a game where seemingly nothing went right from the opening whistle, Northwestern was outmatched inside, and couldn’t counter McDonald when they needed to. After multiple road games, the Wildcats simply didn’t have enough left in the tank against an Arizona team playing in front of 14,000 raucous fans.
Northwestern can use this game as a springboard for future success, as the ‘Cats return everybody outside of Kunaiyi-Akpanah. Joe McKeown’s squad wilted in the moment, but their performance this tournament has the program pointing in the right direction.