Broken record: Wildcats lose 16th

Emily Badger

(Jasper Chen – Daily)

On Senior Day, center Becky Fisher, left, forward Tami Sears and guard Dana Leonard wave to fans Sunday during the last home game of their NU careers. The Wildcats lost to Indiana 69-52 at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

After the Northwestern women’s basketball team lost its final game of the regular season Sunday, capping the program’s first winless Big Ten season, NU coach June Olkowski wasn’t noticeably angry or frustrated or even speechless.

Just tired. Following NU’s 16th consecutive loss – a 69-52 defeat to Indiana in front of 980 fans at Welsh-Ryan Arena – Olkowski methodically laid out her team’s weaknesses in a routine that has become emotionless over the last two months.

“It’s been a difficult year, like we’ve said all along,” she said. “The things that have plagued us are our decision-making, our turnovers and, at times, our inability to score.”

Those repeated blunders have handed NU an 0-16 conference (4-22 overall) record, marking the first time in the program’s 26 seasons that the Wildcats have failed to notch a single Big Ten victory.

After the loss to the Hoosiers (18-9, 9-7 Big Ten), the women joined the 1990-91 and the 1999-2000 men’s teams as the only modern-day NU basketball squads to carry the distinction.

“You don’t ever want to go winless in the Big Ten season, so that brought a little more fight,” forward Tami Sears said. “It was emotional because this was the last game, and we wanted the win.”

The Cats played a solid game by early-January standards. They kept the deficit in single digits going into the half and avoided a blowout down the stretch.

But that’s been the story of most NU games in the second half of the conference season, when the Cats began to stall. After overcoming a stretch of 30-point routs in January, NU struggled to improve beyond a certain level of losing – somewhere between a blowout and a nail-biter.

“That learning curve hasn’t turned for us,” Olkowski said. “We’ve gone up, we’ve sloped and then we’ve dropped out. But we’ve never been able to maintain a learning curve offensively to make better decisions.”

The Cats couldn’t break out of their seasonlong shooting slump and hit only 33 percent from the field. They also converted just four of 17 free throws.

While the offense continued to miss even its easy open shots, NU’s defense kept the contest close. The Cats played a scrappy game in the backcourt, scrambling for jump balls, swatting errant passes to the sideline and beating the Hoosiers on the glass.

Playing on Senior Day and staring down the prospect of a winless conference campaign, the Cats clawed more aggressively for the win than they have all season.

“It was an emotional day, and we took some of that emotion onto the court,” senior Dana Leonard said. “We fought to the end. In the beginning of the season, we could have lost that game by 40 points.”

But the emotion that helped the Cats elevate their defense also resulted in sloppy passes and 27 turnovers. By contrast, Indiana turned over the ball only 18 times.

Between the miscues and missed shots, the Cats have defeated themselves all season.

“We’re still making the same mistakes we made at the beginning of the season,” Sears said. “But it’s the little things that we’re getting better on.”

Unfortunately for NU, no amount of improvement or scrappiness could contain 6-foot-5 Indiana center Jill Chapman. The junior let loose 17 shots and scored 21 points, combining with guards Heather Cassady and Rainey Alting to provide the bulk of Indiana’s offense.

Sears led NU, scoring all 14 of her points in the second half.

At the end of the record-setting season, the Cats at least can take solace in making their opponents battle for wins that would’ve been cinches earlier in the year.

“It’s hard playing a team like us because we do play well in spurts, and it’s not something you can control all the time,” Olkowski said. “We have really played havoc with people’s offenses. If we could just convert and make better decisions offensively, it would be a different outcome.”