Under development (Women’s Basketball)

avid Kalan

In her first year at Northwestern, sophomore transfer Nadia Bibbs is fourth in the Big Ten in assists and has shown the ability to steer the offense. But like her young teammates – NU has eight freshmen and sophomores – she also has the tendency for committing turnovers and missing shots.

A case in point: Jan. 12 against Indiana, the electrical and computer engineering major miscalculated the trajectory of her dribble – the ball bounced off her head and into the hands of a Hoosiers defender. It was one of eight turnovers for Bibbs that night.

Such inconsistency has been the norm for the Wildcats this year, who have played their way to a 5-15 record (1-8 Big Ten).

In the second year of coach Beth Combs’ tenure,

the improvements have been slow. But as Combs likes to tell anyone who will listen, they’re there. NU has already equalled its win total from last year, and the team’s young roster has made noticeable strides.

Especially pleasing to the coaching staff is the effort the team displays, something the coaches stress as they strive to mold NU’s historically maligned program into a contender.

The Cats trounced Michigan on the road last week and held their own with then-No. 8 Purdue – the teams were tied in the second half – in West Lafayette, Ind.

“I feel like we’re getting a lot more respect from a lot of other teams,” senior Ifeoma Okonkwo said after Sunday’s loss at Purdue. “Because we’ve started working harder and we’ve started working well together.

“Sooner or later it’s going to turn into a win – or wins.”

While there have been improvements, the Cats aren’t immune to poor performances. NU suffered a Jan. 18 non-conference loss to Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and four days later lost by 43 at home against Penn State with an effort Combs deemed “not acceptable.” The Cats had more than twice as many turnovers as field goals in the team’s worst performance of the year.

From the start of the season Combs has counted on the upperclassman, Okonkwo and junior A.J. Glasauer, to shepherd the team through its growing pains. Okonkwo leads the team in scoring with 14 points per game and is shooting 51.5 percent from the field. Glasauer has not been far behind, averaging 12.2 points.

In a strange maneuver, Combs decided to start Okonkwo on the bench for a Dec. 17 game against St. Mary’s. The strategy worked. Okonkwo, still coming off the bench, often provides a spark for NU. Her low-post play has been one of the few bright spots in the inside for a team that is routinely outplayed in the paint. The Cats currently are last in the Big Ten in both offensive and defensive rebounds.

Despite their shortcomings, NU’s freshmen have at times shown flashes of what the team can be in the future. Guard Kristin Cartwright is third on the team in field goal percentage. Guard Erin Dickerson has displayed a sweet shot from behind the arc. And center Julie Bielawski’s low post moves give hope that with some development she may yet cure NU’s inside ills.

Of course, the future is not the concern for these Cats, who still have seven conference games before the Big Ten tournament starts March 2.

“We just want to make a statement that we’re here to compete in the Big Ten and we want to win,” sophomore center Melissa Miller said early last month. “We haven’t shown that yet because we haven’t come together and played our best game.”

Sophomore Sara Stutz has also been a positive, showing versatility and scrappiness on the defensive side of the ball, with 33 steals to her credit.

Unfortunately, her shooting has suffered and she has been guilty of 65 turnovers to only 56 assists.

“I constantly have to switch back and forth (between positions),” Stutz said before the team’s loss to UW-Milwaukee. “I might be in the post for four or five possessions, but then someone will sub in and I’ll have to play the point, and then I’ll have to play the two. It’s hard to get a rhythm going.”

Shooting has ultimately been the Cats’ downfall. After giving up 55 points in an explosive second half against UW-Milwaukee, Combs noted, “The last three games 55 points is more than we’ve been scoring.” NU currently has the lowest field goal percentage in the Big Ten.

The schedule doesn’t get any easier with national runner-up Michigan State coming to town on Thursday, but the team is hoping the past week’s improvements are signs of good things to come.

“We started slow,” Combs said. “But I think we’re finally starting to get our identity as a team and really starting to work together as a team. We’re going to start over now for the second half of the conference and build on what we’ve done to end this first half of conference play.

“It’s about how you finish, it’s not about how you start.”

The Daily’s David Morrison contributed to this story.

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