Conference success eludes Cats … again

Teddy Kider

It was supposed to be a victory.

After regrouping and playing impressively in two straight overtime losses, the Wildcats were set to win their first conference game against a Wisconsin team that had gone 1-5 against Big Ten opponents.

But the Badgers had other plans for the Northwestern women’s basketball team, which took a giant step backward Sunday in a 69-53 loss at the Kohl Center in Madison, Wis.

Despite outscoring Wisconsin 38-35 in the second half, NU (7-11, 0-7 Big Ten) had no answers for the Badgers’ inside game, which helped Wisconsin muscle its way to a 19-point halftime lead. That left the Cats with little hope for a second-half comeback, as the frustrated squad dropped its seventh consecutive game.

Wisconsin center Emily Ashbaugh scored 14 points, teaming up with forward Jordan Wilson, who had 15, to burn NU’s man-to-man defense in the lane.

“We were playing man, and they were pounding us on the inside,” coach June Olkowski said. “Then their shooter got a three-pointer while we were playing man.”

That shooter was guard Ashley Josephson, who drained a three-pointer every time the Cats gained momentum. Despite switching to a zone defense for parts of the second half, Josephson led Wisconsin (8-9, 2-5) with a career-high 16 points on 4-of-6 shooting from behind the arc.

“We work on defense every day in practice,” Olkowski said. “Obviously, we’ve got to go back and look at what we did wrong. Our defense has been good to us in the past, and we probably would have been OK if we had scored more than 15 (points in the first half).”

The lack of production from NU’s three freshmen contributed greatly to its offensive flaws. In a season where veterans have been fighting injuries, Alex Mueller, Breanne Smilie and A.J. Glasauer have had to carry much of the load.

The freshman trio played a combined 67 minutes Sunday, but totaled just 10 points and six assists.

Guard Melissa Culver was the Cats’ high-scorer in the first half with just six points. But the team’s offense improved after the break, with Culver and two others finishing in double digits.

Culver recovered from a scoreless performance against Michigan State on Thursday with a game-high 17 points on 4-for-8 three-point shooting.

“We’ve lost a couple of games in which different people have been stepping up,” Culver said. “Today was just my day to step up.”

Forward Ifeoma Okonkwo was aggressive on the inside, scoring 12 points and grabbing a team-leading eight rebounds, while center Sarah Kwasinski continued her successful return from injuries with 11 points.

“It was very hard because (Wisconsin) had four girls taller than me,” said the 6-foot-4 Kwasinski. “You just have to use their height against them and go around them.”

The Cats were able to limit their turnovers to 13, well below their average. But the Badgers gave up the ball just nine times in a dominating performance.

The 16-point defeat follows two games in which NU showed improvement over early conference losses. The Cats entered Sunday’s contest confident they would finally grab a win against a struggling Wisconsin, which was coming off a heartbreaking home loss to Michigan.

Instead, NU is still waiting for its first conference victory.

“We’re all frustrated,” Olkowski said, “but not to a point where we won’t do something about it.”