Women’s Basketball Sidebar: Wildcats continue tendency to start slow

Danny Daly

Though difficult to watch, Northwestern’s 13-point first half against Illinois wasn’t any worse than some of its other performances during the past few years. The Wildcats are prone to the occasional first half in which they can’t get anything to fall, like their 12-point effort in the opening round of last year’s Big Ten Tournament and 15-point output at Purdue earlier this season.

In both of those losses, NU managed to close the gap to within three points after the break, at least giving itself a chance to take the lead. The Cats couldn’t do that Sunday, as the Illini jumped out to a 23-13 lead at halftime and were never threatened in a 58-48 victory at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

“It was a physical, defensive battle, and we just couldn’t run our offense,” Coach Joe McKeown said. “We couldn’t get the shots we wanted, and you’ve got to give Illinois some credit on that with their defense. Shots that we made all year at home didn’t go down, especially from beyond the arc. We had a lot of inside stuff go in and out.”

Considering NU shot 5-of-29 from the field before intermission, a 10-point deficit wasn’t unreasonable-though the Cats didn’t take advantage of their seven offensive rebounds, recording two second-chance points.

NU seemed poised to make a run coming out of the locker room when junior center Amy Jaeschke was fouled on a layup and made the ensuing free throw on its first offensive possession. But the Cats never got closer than that, as the Illini scored the next 11 points.

“We opened the half with a three-point play,” McKeown said. “The problem was we couldn’t back it up. We couldn’t go on a 9-2 run or a 12-2 run or something. When you come out and make a three-point play, it should energize you.”

Instead, Illinois seized a 34-16 edge with 16-and-a-half minutes left. While the Cats tried to chip away at the lead, they didn’t put together their best stretch until less than five minutes to go when they scored six points in a row.

It wasn’t enough to affect the outcome.

“Every time we started to make a run, they would come right back and get to the free throw line or stop our momentum,” said Jaeschke, who tallied a game-high 17 points on 6-of-19 shooting.

Illinois’ hyper-aggressive defense wore down NU’s attack just like it did in the teams’ other three meetings over the past two years. The Cats have averaged 47 points in those four games and made less than one-third of their shots.

The Illini’s strategy was no surprise Sunday, but it still created problems.

“We knew it was coming,” freshman forward Kendall Hackney said. “They’re very athletic and try to jump out at everything, so we were really just trying to focus on looking before you pass, ball fakes. But they got too many deflections.”

Those deflections led to easy baskets in transition, and Illinois outscored NU 12-0 on the fast break. Senior forward Lacey Simpson had six of the Illini’s nine steals.

Despite getting a number of open looks inside, NU ended up on the wrong side of a 28-10 scoring margin in the paint. The Illini forced the Cats to hurry some shots, which led to a few misses from close range.

“On shots that you think are good shots, because of their quickness, you shoot a half-second quicker than you want to,” McKeown said. “You’re looking at them instead of the rim every now and then. They can play a little quicker than you want to play at times, just because you can’t reverse the ball like you want to. We couldn’t get backdoor cuts for layups.”

Including its 78-47 defeat at Ohio State last Thursday, NU has failed to top 50 points in consecutive games for the first time since early February of last year. That’s not an ideal streak to ride into the upcoming Big Ten Tournament.[email protected]