Women’s Basketball: Cats preparing to enter the Nittany Lions’ Den

Colin Becht

As Northwestern prepares for its regular season finale, the Wildcats have a lot riding on Sunday’s game at Penn State.

As a bubble team for the NCAA Tournament, Sunday’s contest and NU’s performance in the Big Ten Tournament next weekend will make or break the Cats’ dancing shoes.

But before the Cats can look ahead to March, they first have to worry about January, when the Nittany Lions bombarded them from long range to earn an 80-68 victory.

Junior forward Brittany Orban said Penn State’s freshman guard Maggie Lucas was at the front lines of the three-point attack.

“They had one critical player that made a few down the stretch that really was a backbreaker in the game,” Orban said. “Definitely the pressure has to increase outside of the three-point arc and not allow them to get those shots to end the game.”

Lucas hit on five-of-six threes against NU, attributing to Penn State’s 63.6 percent shooting accuracy from behind the arc. Lucas’ 3-pointer with 8:15 remaining in the second half halted a NU run that had cut the deficit to four points. She struck again from behind the arc three minutes later with a dagger to put the Nittany Lions up by 11.

“You’ve got to find her,” coach Joe McKeown said. “She’s had a tremendous year. Part of that is because she shoots so quick.”

McKeown also said with the plethora of weapons in Penn State’s arsenal, it’s easy for someone to get overlooked and strike back.

In addition to Lucas, the Nittany Lions have five other players averaging more than nine points per game, including guards Alex Bentley, who averages 14.4 points per game, and Zhaque Gray with 10 points per game.

“They push the ball at you hard, and you’re always trying to find Bentley and stop her and Gray,” McKeown said. “They’ve got a lot of weapons. We’ve got to focus really hard on stopping their transition.”

Penn State ranks first offensively in the Big Ten, averaging 78.8 points per contest. The Nittany Lions also top the Big Ten in field goal percentage (45.5 percent), 3-point percentage (44.2 percent) and rebounding (41 rebounds per game). So the 80 points Penn State dropped on NU last month was nothing unusual for the Nittany Lions.

The Cats will need a much stronger defensive effort, especially if they shoot as poorly as they did last time against Penn State. The Cats shot just 34.5 percent from the floor and made just 7-of-21 from behind the arc.

“We’ve definitely grown defensively,” sophomore guard Tailor Jones said. “We’re more aware of who could hurt us and who couldn’t hurt us, just being aware of personnel.”

Orban was the exception to NU’s offensive struggles, scoring 20 points on 8-of-15 shooting with three 3-pointers. She said the rest of her team’s struggles were more a testament of an off night than anything Penn State did defensively.

“It just depends on the night and how we’re doing,” Orban said. “Coming off of this win (on Sunday) against Minnesota, our team’s going to go in there with more confidence and know that the shots we take are going to go in.”

McKeown agreed that the Cats’ primary concern heading to Happy Valley this weekend is shutting down the Nittany Lions rather than anything offensive.

“Our problem in the Penn State game wasn’t scoring,” McKeown said. “It was stopping them. It was a defensive issue. Going in to Sunday, part of our focus all week is going to be just from a defensive standpoint, just slowing them down and making it hard for them to score.”

It is still uncertain whether NU will have senior guard Beth Marshall back for Sunday. Marshall suffered an eye injury that forced her to miss last Sunday’s 62-55 win over Minnesota.

When Marshall skipped the length of the court during warm-ups at practice on Wednesday, McKeown said, “She looks good, right?”

As for whether she’ll be able to play against Penn State, McKeown said, “I hope so. She looks ready right now.”

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