Women’s Basketball: After two-game homestand, Cats set sights on Baton Rouge

Kevin Trahan

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Northwestern capitalized on its height advantage Thursday, riding 50 points from its forwards to a 69-62 win over Illinois State.

Junior forward Dannielle Diamant led the Wildcats with 18 points and 10 rebounds, while Brittany Orban and Kendall Hackney each added 14 points.

At six-foot-five, Diamant had an edge on every single one of the Redbirds’ players, and used that height advantage to dominate down low, posting her first double-double since the 2009-2010 season.

“Illinois State is definitely undersized compared to us,” Diamant said, “so getting the ball inside was a big thing for us.”

Coach Joe McKeown said he was impressed with Diamant’s play, not only Thursday, but through all three games this season.

“She established herself pretty well inside,” he said. “I think Dannielle is one of most improved players in college basketball.”

Orban also had a big game inside – she didn’t attempt a three-pointer all game. She said that physical play down low is always part of the gameplan.

“Getting inside and putting up strong also gets it outside and that’s going to be big no matter who we’re playing,” Orban said.

Given the size disadvantage, Illinois State’s gameplan centered around perimeter shooting from the start. The Redbirds started four guards and took 21 threes, draining 47.6 percent of their attempts from beyond the arc.

“Illinois State is an outstanding team and they shot well tonight,” McKeown said. “They made tough shots with us contesting, and from a coaching standpoint, that’s what you want.”

Since most of the Redbirds’ shots came from outside, that forced the Cats’ defense to extend beyond the paint.

“They were on fire tonight from three, so that was definitely a focus to switch outside from the perimeter,” Orban said.

Illinois State’s three-point shooting allowed it to get back into the game after NU had extended its lead to 21-13 with eight minutes remaining in the first half. The Redbirds scored 10 straight points to take a 23-21 lead, but the Cats responded with a 7-0 run of their own to retake the lead.

The second half was much the same way with Illinois State scoring the first seven points of the half and staying close for the bulk of the period. After seven ties and five lead changes, NU finally jumped out to a double-digit lead with 5:14 remaining, an advantage it would maintain until the final whistle.

McKeown was impressed with his team’s ability to put the Redbirds away.

“I like how we finished first half and I liked how we finished the game,” he said.

While NU did its best work in the paint, its guards also put together solid games. Freshman Morgan Jones put up 11 points and grabbed six rebounds, while classmate Karly Roser tallied 13 assists and demonstrated impressive ball-handling skills against the aggressive Illinois State defense.

“I was really proud of our team to play three games in six days,” McKeown said. “It’s a long trip to come back to play back-to-back Tuesday and Thursday night.”

Now the Cats have the benefit of a long rest period to prepare for their biggest challenge yet: a trip to Baton Rouge to face No. 20 Louisiana State on Tuesday.

McKeown hopes to see improvement before Tuesday, particularly in the team’s communication.

“We have a lot of different people with minutes and a lot of different positions,” he said. “We haven’t had a lot of practice time at a lot of different lineups.”

Louisiana State will mark NU’s second road game of the season – the Cats beat Central Michigan in their season opener – and Diamant said that experience in Mount Pleasant, Mich., will help the team when they face a hostile environment in Baton Rouge.

“It was field day for (Central Michigan) too,” she said, “so the entire crowd was little kids yelling and screaming so that was good preparation for us.”

Orban said she is excited for the opportunity to play a high-quality opponent on the road.

“We played LSU last year at home; it’s always a tough battle,” she said. “We’re definitely going to have the crowd against us. No team is unbeatable right now; we just have to go down with confidence.”