Getting rid of the skid

Sam Hong

The streak was 21 days short of its third birthday. Throughout its existence, it stood in the way of the Northwestern women’s basketball team making any considerable progress.

But for the Wildcats, the 43-game Big Ten-regular season losing streak that began on Jan. 23, 2000, is now in the rearview mirror. The Cats (6-7, 1-1 Big Ten) defeated Michigan State (6-5, 0-1) 52-46 at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Thursday.

The Cats did it the old-fashioned way — with good defense, sound fundamentals and solid ball control.

They also did it with some clutch play. Sophomore point guard Samantha McComb sank seven critical free throws in the game’s final minutes to lead the Cats to victory.

McComb played all 40 minutes and led all scorers with 14 points, going 8-for-10 from the free-throw line. She also led NU with four assists.

Sophomore center Sarah Kwasinski contributed nine points and led the team with six rebounds and four blocked shots.

Senior Natalie Will was part of an effective bench, chipping in 10 points.

The Cats limited their mistakes, committing 10 turnovers while forcing the Spartans into 11 give-aways.

Although neither team shot well — 28 percent from the floor for the Spartans and 38 percent for NU — the Cats were better from both the charity stripe and beyond the arc.

But the good shooting didn’t begin until after the half.

The Cats started off slowly, shooting just 29 percent from the field in the opening frame. And although the Spartans also struggled to put points on the board, NU found itself behind 21-18 at halftime.

The second half was a completely different story.

McComb, Will, sophomore guard Kristin Ambrose and junior forward Michelle Zylstra all nailed key three-pointers in the late stages of the game to propel the Cats to victory.

NU made 8 of 15 from three-point range, including 5-for-7 in the second half. NU also sank 9 of 13 from the free-throw line in the second half.

When the final buzzer sounded, madness ensued as the Cats began celebrating the end of almost three years of frustration.

“It was just surreal, just hard to grasp,” Kwasinski said. “To win our first Big Ten game in such a long time, it was just really exciting.”

For much of the team, including Kwasinski, the streak had been going since before they arrived. The win was their first ever Big Ten victory and only the fourth for head coach June Olkowski.

Only the six seniors on the squad were around when NU won its last conference match, against Minnesota on Jan. 20, 2000.

This latest win is further evidence of NU’s development this year. The team is hovering around the .500 mark overall and rebounded well from its opening conference game in which it was annihilated by Ohio State, 82-49.

Over the past three weeks, NU was runner-up in the Denver Classic and the Rutgers Coca-Cola Classic. The Cats also won the Mildred & Roger L. White Invitational for the first time in five years. At one point, the Cats were riding a three-game winning streak.

But all of this was just a prelude to the breakthrough win against Michigan State.

“This is why we have nonconference games,” Kwasinski said. “Nonconference games are still important but they’re our preparation to play against Big Ten teams.”

NU finished its nonconference schedule Saturday at No. 24 DePaul. Although NU played well against a strong Blue Demon squad and was within six at the half, they ultimately dropped the contest 70-51.

But the loss was insignificant compared to the triumph against the Spartans.

“We’ve started taking that step (towards winning a large percentage of our games),” Kwasinski said. “It’s a progression and we’re moving in the right direction. But one win isn’t going to determine our chances for an NCAA (tournament) bid.”

Kwasinski still feels that the team has a lot more to accomplish this season now that the streak is in the past.

“We’re not really looking at it as ‘Oh my God, we have to play all these Big Ten teams,'” she said. “We’re ready to earn the respect that we deserve. Clearly this is not the team of last year.”