With just under nine minutes remaining Thursday, Northwestern had a victory well within reach. Instead the Wildcats lost their defensive composure and, with it, the game.
Unable to halt the Penn State offense, NU watched as a manageable four-point deficit turned into a 12-point defeat. Trailing 54-50 late in the second half, the Cats ultimately fell to the Nittany Lions, 80-68.
“I’m just disappointed in the way that we finished the last seven, eight minutes of the game,” coach Joe McKeown said. “It was a really good game, and all of the sudden we just broke down.”
Behind a second-half shooting percentage that was nearly 10 percent better than in the first half, including a perfect 4-for-4 performance from behind the arc, the Nittany Lions (13-4, 2-1 Big Ten) broke open the tight game and cruised to the victory.
Alex Bentley paced the Penn State offense, leading all scorers with 24 points, while Maggie Lucas came off the bench to drop 20 on the Cats (12-4, 1-2 Big Ten). Lucas was especially deadly behind the arc, hitting on 5-of-6 3-pointers.
“We have to take scouting reports and implement them into the game,” senior center Amy Jaeschke said. “We all knew that Maggie Lucas could shoot the heck out of the ball, could knock down 3-pointers and get really hot during the game. That’s exactly what she did.”
NU fell behind early and spent nearly the entire game playing catch-up, only twice holding leads of one point. Just more than four minutes into the second half the Cats were on top 40-39, but two-and-a-half minutes later NU was back behind by seven.
“They were just knocking down shots,” junior forward Brittany Orban said. “We were trading off baskets, and we missed a few here or there, and they weren’t missing.”
Orban was NU’s leading scorer of the night with 20 points, followed by sophomore forward Kendall Hackney with 17 and Jaeschke with 16.
However, Jaeschke, who averages more than 23 points per game, was not without her struggles. Despite finishing with a double-double, pulling in 12 rebounds, it took her nearly 14 minutes to register her first point of the game.
“I knew we really had to shut Jaeschke down,” Lucas said. “So when I was playing the back of the zone, that was a big point I had to make to guard her when she would pop up to the elbows.”
In addition to Lucas’s help, center Nikki Greene provided a more physical presence on Jaeschke in the low post.
“She’s able to match Jaeschke’s size,” Penn State coach Coquese Washington said. “And then she has the athleticism to guard her.”
Jaeschke admitted that Greene flustered her initially, leading to the slow start.
“Defensively, they got us out of our comfort zone, especially me,” Jaeschke said. “They were very physical down low.”
Across the board the Nittany Lions agitated NU’s offense as the Cats shot a season low 34.5 percent.
“We settled way too much,” McKeown said. “We took 21 3-pointers.”
The Cats also struggled to hang on to the ball, turning it over 22 times.
“They kind of pushed us out of the pace that we like to play,” Orban said. “That’s definitely a focus that we have to work on, taking care of each possession.”
Turnovers are a stat NU has lived and died on in the beginnings of Big Ten play, committing 23 turnovers in a 71-69 loss to Indiana.
“We did the same thing at Indiana, and then against Purdue we had nine turnovers, just took care of the basketball the whole game,” McKeown said. “Tonight, even at home – which really surprised me – we got so sloppy.”
Still, turnovers didn’t doom NU on Thursday, and in fact the Cats won the turnover battle, forcing 27 Penn State miscues.
“It’s one of those games where you wish you wouldn’t turn the ball over like that,” Washington said. “But if you can come away with the win on the road, even when you turn the ball over like we did, we’ll take it for sure.”