Coach hopeful throughout dreary December start

Nina Mandell

Despite four losses in six games and injuries to two key players, Northwestern coach Beth Combs said December was a good month for her team.

“Our goal is to make everyone better every single day, and I believe our players have done that,” she said.

The team went 2-4 during the break, taking third place in the San Juan shootout in Puerto Rico before losing to No. 12 Minnesota in its Big Ten opener. NU fell to Wisconsin 62-60 on Sunday.

December served as a quick learning experience for the Wildcats. NU (3-12, 0-2 Big Ten) lost two players last month as senior Suzanne Morrison injured her knee Dec. 12 against Wisconsin-Milwaukee and freshman Kelly Rae Findley suffered stress fractures in her leg in the Cats’ final game in Puerto Rico. Those injuries resulted in lineup shuffling, and the team is now starting two freshmen and junior guard Ifeoma Okonkwo switched to a forward spot.

Despite these challenges, the team found consistency in unlikely places. Freshman Melissa Miller has started every game for NU this season, and she grabbed 13 rebounds against Minnesota.

“She’s not a freshman on the floor anymore,” Combs said.

But Miller’s rebounding and the team’s progress were not enough for NU to top No. 12 Minnesota (11-2, 2-0) on Dec. 30. The Cats were outsized and outshot by the Gophers and lost the contest 62-44, shooting only 30 percent from the field. Combs said the team played well in the second half but needed more energy from the start to get the job done.

Minnesota outscored NU in the paint, but the Cats got a boost from Okonkwo who scored 18 points. In her new position, Okonkwo beat her average point total by seven.

“Okonkwo has become a leader on this team,” Combs said. “She’s such a great athlete and she’s responded very well (to the lineup changes).”

The Cats warmed up for the conference season in Puerto Rico, taking third place in the San Juan shootout. Although NU beat Northern Iowa (7-5) in the first round of the shootout, 66-58, it couldn’t keep up the momentum and lost to Charlotte (12-2) in the second round 72-64.

NU finished its trip with a 69-66 win against Towson (8-4), a team that was picked to finish last in the Colonial Athletic Association this season. But Combs said that game showed her team had the maturity to bounce back from a loss.

“The win against Towson was a big gut check,” she said. “We had to have a lot of confidence to gut a performance out to beat Towson.”

And guts are something the team needs in order to get out of its comfort zone and be able to play with only eight players in the lineup, Combs said.

Like every other setback the Cats had in December, Combs said she saw the short lineup as an opportunity for her players to live up to their potential.

“I don’t think it’s hurt the team,” she said. “It gets everyone to see what they’re made of and learn to grow together.”

And growing is something Combs said her team has done a lot in the past month.

“It takes a long time,” she said. “You can’t just turn around a program overnight.”

Reach Nina Mandell at [email protected]