Butler out; NU gets served

Emily Badger

CHAMPAIGN – Just when Northwestern seemed to be exhausting the limits of its record-breaking losing streak, the same force that circulated stress fractures like a common cold and targeted the team’s healthiest player for mononucleosis earlier in the season returned to rob the Wildcats of their point guard.

That force – call it injury, bad luck, poor timing – dealt the NU women’s basketball team (4-18, 0-12 Big Ten) another blow this week, forcing the Cats to take on Illinois without leading scorer Emily Butler, who sustained a concussion in Sunday’s loss to Penn State.

Without Butler, the Cats were unable to keep pace with the Fighting Illini (12-11, 7-4) beyond the first half and eventually fell 65-45 in front of 3,391 fans at Assembly Hall.

“It was a challenge for us,” NU forward Tami Sears said. “(Butler) averages 35 minutes, and she has the ball in her hands the majority of the time. We knew coming in it was going to be tough. Other people had to step up, and we knew that, and it motivated us a little bit.”

The Cats started the game looking as if they were capable of playing without Butler, jumping out to a 7-2 lead. NU traded baskets with the Illini and held the lead most of the way through the first half.

But Illinois closed out the final three minutes with a 10-0 run.

That run put the Cats in a hole they couldn’t claw out of after the intermission. Illinois continued to heap on points, at one time running off 14 straight.

The 22 points Butler scored against Penn State on Sunday would have been the difference Thursday. But as the game started to slip away from NU, it was clear Butler’s motivational skills were sorely missed.

In the second half, the Cats made only seven of 29 shots for a 24 percent mark from the field, a sign that NU allowed the growing lead to affect its shooting accuracy.

“What frustrated us was that we couldn’t score,” NU coach June Olkowski said. “I keep reminding the kids that you can’t drive the bus looking in the mirror. We have to keep our eyes ahead.”

Olkowski inserted Dana Leonard in Butler’s starting slot.

“Dana took this as a challenge, and she didn’t back down from it,” Olkowski said. “That’s all we’ve asked from her all year long, and I think she’s back.”

The start was only Leonard’s fourth of the season, and her first since a Jan. 14 loss to Purdue.

The senior was supposed to be the Cats’ starting point guard this season until she contracted mono in the fall.

Since becoming ill, Leonard has struggled to play at even 75 percent of her capability, making her 32 minutes of play Thursday a tall order.

“I realized this was a challenge for me to show Coach that I can put some big-time minutes on the floor,” Leonard said. “I was the point guard for the last three years, so it’s old hat for me. I have been struggling this year, but I am a point guard.”

Leonard scored 11 points, second only on the Cats to Tami Sears’ 12. But the pair couldn’t compete with Illinois forward Allison Curtin, who scored 17 points.

And the NU attack couldn’t keep up on the boards, where Illinois dominated, 42-25.

Butler will be given the rest of the week off, after which time she will be re-evaluated by doctors.

“I think she’s fine,” Olkowski said. “I think we all think she’s fine. But I’m the basketball coach – what do I know?”

Butler sustained the concussion in the first five minutes of Sunday’s game after receiving an elbow to the head. But she went on to play 38 minutes and match her season high in scoring.

All that suggests that when Butler does return, she should be able to pick up where she left off – helping the Cats in an uphill battle toward their first conference win.

“We’ll get Emily back,” said Olkowski, whose team faces No. 20 Wisconsin (14-8, 8-4) Saturday in Evanston. “I guess you could look at it that way. I’ve been there and I’ve been hurt, and it’s not pleasing. But there’s always someone worse off than you are, so you can’t feel sorry for yourself. You have to step up and keep going.”