Mid-season Report: Crawling out (Women’s basketball)

Abe Rakov

First-year coach Beth Combs isn’t running back to New York, but it’s looking more like Combs did Athletic Director Mark Murphy the favor by leaving Colgate, not the other way around.

At this time last year, Combs was 13-7 en route to a Patriot League championship and a NCAA Tournament bid. This year, she is 5-18 and in a weekly struggle to keep out of the Big Ten cellar.

“This is one of the premier conferences in the league,” Combs said. “There have been no surprises, this is what we expected.”

Even with its struggles, Northwestern (5-18, 2-8 Big Ten) is on pace to be the ninth seed in the Big Ten tournament — its best finish since the 1998-99 season.

But overall, this season has left Combs, and everybody else, scratching their heads.

The Wildcats have had losing streaks of seven and four games, and have yet to win back-to-back contests. After one of its biggest wins in recent memory against then-No. 24 Penn State (14-8, 9-2), NU squandered its momentum. The Cats lost an opportunity at the end of the Purdue game and got humiliated in a 61-point loss at No. 10 Michigan State (20-3, 9-2).

“I’m embarrassed for our team, our program and our university,” Combs said after the Michigan State loss Thursday. “I don’t have a whole lot of good things to say about what happened tonight. And I apologize for that. What we did tonight is bad for the league and bad for women’s basketball.”

This team is still a win behind last year’s record at this point, but its This team is still a win behind last year’s record at this point. But its two Big Ten victories already have doubled last season’s total. Still, the Cats should have more than five wins.

Four games turned NU’s chances of having a break-out year into the norm — a spot near the bottom of the Big Ten.

In the second game of the Big Ten season, the Cats had a shot against Wisconsin (9-11, 3-7), but senior Melissa Culver’s three-point heave rimmed-out in a two-point loss. The next week, NU led Indiana (9-12, 2-9) at halftime in Bloomington before being outscored by the hapless Hoosiers by 14 points in the second half.

In their next time out, the not-so-comeback Cats watched a 17-point second-half lead evaporate in Iowa City against the Hawkeyes (15-6, 4-6).

And then there was the Purdue (13-9, 6-5) game Jan. 30.

Down three with the ball, the Cats came out of a timeout confused and ran a play that ended in another Culver desperation three-point attempt.

With these games, the Cats could conceivably be 6-4 in the conference and Combs would be the front-runner for the Big Ten Coach of the Year. But they could just as easily be 0-10.

“We’re hoping we can improve upon what we’ve accomplished and finish strong the next half of the season into the Big Ten tournament,” Combs said.

Combs doesn’t have to look far to find what needs fixing.

NU ranks last in the Big Ten in defensive field goal percentage and scoring margin and 10th in scoring offense and scoring defense. The Cats are also last in offensive and defensive rebounds.

But Thursday night’s game at Michigan State notwithstanding, Combs has turned NU from an opponent’s night off to a “good little team” as Purdue coach Kristy Curry put it.

When Illinois coach Theresa Grentz said NU would surprise some people and even knock a few off, it just seemed like she was covering herself after the Cats kept it close against the Illini. Her statement turned out to be more than just a cover.

“We’ve only won two Big Ten games,” Combs said. “But I think that’s better than what most people expected.”

Last year at this time, the question was whether the Cats would avoid a third winless Big Ten season in four years. This season fans wonder what team is going to show up each half.

That’s a sign of improvement, isn’t it?

Reach Abe Rakov at [email protected].