Cats make ‘great strides,’ but Big Ten win remains elusive

Emily Badger

To No. 5 Purdue, a 16-point loss – against anyone – would be a monumental disaster. For No. 16 Penn State, a 16-point loss would be a smack in the face. And to Iowa, now winners of six straight, a 16-point loss would recall unwanted nightmares from last year’s season to forget.

But Northwestern (4-19, 0-13 Big Ten) is unlike most of its conference opponents – for the Wildcats, a 70-54 loss to No. 20 Wisconsin (15-8, 9-4) on Sunday is progress.

“A month ago we would have lost this game by 40,” point guard Emily Butler said. “To play with them all the way throughout the game and not have any gigantic letups is impressive.”

The loss, which came in front of a record crowd of 4,018 at Welsh-Ryan Arena, is the Cats’ 13th straight. But it’s also their third positive defeat in a row – meaning NU held a few early leads, stayed in the game through the first half and held off a blowout down the stretch.

“I don’t think anything takes the sting off losing, especially when you’ve lost as much as we have,” Butler said. “But at the same time you can take positives from each game. We’ve made great strides.”

The Cats managed to keep the game close in the first half, exchanging seven leads with the Badgers, despite shooting only 36 percent to Wisconsin’s 50.

At halftime NU was trailing by just five points. But after the break, the Cats repeated the trend that has kept close losses from becoming actual wins in the last two weeks: the Cats couldn’t hold Wisconsin’s lead to single digits after the break, allowing the margin to swell as large as 18 points.

But the fact that it never got any bigger was a point of optimism for NU coach June Olkowski, who has seen her team blown out in the second half more often than not.

“The basket gets quite small when you get down, and then on your first four or five possessions you don’t score,” Olkowski said. “We wouldn’t be able to throw a beach ball in the ocean. But those are the times when you have to relax and execute and rely on each other.”

The Cats had trouble relaxing and shot a frustrated 23 percent from the field in the second half, as Wisconsin’s physical advantage took over.

“I told my staff I thought it would be a really tight game until the 15-minute mark of the second half,” Wisconsin coach Jane Albright said. “That’s really where I felt like our size and strength and freshness won over.”

To be more specific, Wisconsin’s three starters taller than 6-foot-3 took over, as did 6-foot-5 Emily Ashbaugh off the bench.

Tami Sears, NU’s tallest starter at 6-foot-2, had trouble battling Wisconsin’s towering post players, LaTonya Sims and Jessie Stomski.

Sears and center Leslie Dolland both finished the game with 13 points, but the pair struggled in the paint all afternoon, failing at times to finish on easy layup opportunities.

“I would probably have gotten frustrated if every time I turned around I saw shoulders,” Olkowski said. “(Sears) was surrounded by shoulders, and she couldn’t even look over them.”

But competing with such a steep physical disadvantage only made the loss easier to account for.

“It’s disheartening to lose,” Olkowski said. “But I thought that defensively, we played one of the best games we could’ve played against them. (And) I feel like we’ve played with an intensity in the last four games that we haven’t had.”