Pillote: Northwestern’s intriguing women’s basketball team deserves your attention

Bobby Pillote, Assistant Sports Editor

Already done with Northwestern men’s basketball?

After an uninspiring 81-58 blowout against Wisconsin, it’s hard not to be over the Wildcats. Second-year coach Chris Collins has assembled a roster filled with promise but not much else, and it’s already clear this isn’t the year NU will break its existence-long NCAA Tournament drought.

Fortunately for basketball fans, the Cats’ women’s team is having its best season in recent memory, and it’s time for everybody to start paying attention.

NU is currently 12-2 with wins over ranked DePaul and Michigan State squads, and in perfect position to make a run to the postseason. If you’re convinced, great — see you Sunday at 2 p.m. when the Cats host a rematch against the Spartans.

If not, read on.

The team is helmed by Joe McKeown, who ranks among the best coaches in the Big Ten. He entered the season second in the conference in career wins and recently celebrated his 600th victory. In his seventh season at NU, the veteran coach has finally assembled a roster capable of cracking the NCAA Tournament field.

On the court, the Cats lean on the talents of sophomore forward Nia Coffey. The Minnesota native was First-Team All-Big Ten last season and pre-season Coaches All-Big Ten this year and has the stats to back it up.

During the 2013-14 campaign, Coffey averaged 15.3 points and 8.1 rebounds per game to go along with 1.84 blocks and 1.66 steals per contest. This year, her stats are up: 15.9 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.86 blocks per game — all team highs — as well as a 2.0 steals average. And the effects are starting to show up in the win column.

Playing with Coffey in the starting lineup and lurking just below her on the stat sheet is junior guard Maggie Lyon. The hometown product played high school basketball just up the road at New Trier and — if that weren’t reason enough to be a fan — is also having a career year in terms of her rate statistics.

Lyon’s minutes, points per game and rebounds per game are all down from a year ago, but the perimeter specialist is shooting a career-best 44 percent from beyond the arc, good for third in the Big Ten.

Joining Lyon in the backcourt is sophomore point guard Ashley Deary. Despite her slight stature (she’s listed at just 5-foot-4), she’s one of the most exciting players on the court and leads the Big Ten in steals with four per game.

The stats go on and on for a team that has impressed through 14 games. NU is first in the conference in scoring defense, first in opponent field goal percentage, third in blocked shots, first in steals, first in assists and second in turnover margin. That 12-2 record is no accident.

The Cats are talented, exciting and, most importantly, successful. As men’s basketball continues to wallow in a weak Big Ten with an inexperienced roster, women’s basketball will make a legitimate charge toward an NCAA Tournament berth.

The women’s basketball team deserves your support. And if you’re looking to watch some exciting basketball or just want to experience the thrill of victory or the drama of a postseason chase, women’s basketball is your best choice.

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Twitter: @BobbyPillote