Northwestern (12-2, 2-1 Big Ten) returns home to Welsh-Ryan Arena on Sunday to face off against Big Ten rival Michigan State (8-6, 0-3) for the second time in as many weeks.
Recovering from a tough loss against Ohio State this past Sunday, the Wildcats hope they can replicate the fiery team defense that afforded them a 61-57 victory over the Spartans in late December.
There’s no question the Cats will have the necessary competitive spirit. Forward Nia Coffey admitted that there’s more fuel in the fire with this matchup, as the sophomore and her teammates look to sweep the Spartans so “they know we’re a good team.”
NU suffered quite the closing scare in its first matchup with Michigan State, as the Spartans sliced the Cats’ lead from 15 to 3 in the second period. But NU stabilized itself to secure the win.
“We kept our poise,” coach Joe McKeown said. “Even though we let that run happen, we didn’t panic. We showed a lot of resilience in the last two minutes.”
This sense of calm is the one thing that McKeown hopes his team brings to Sunday’s game.
The Cats will certainly have to maintain composure against Michigan State, not only in the face of the previous matchup action, but also as they deal with the Spartans’ top players: Aerial Powers, Tori Jankoska and Becca Mills. Mills, who grabbed 16 boards against the Cats back in December and sits at No. 14 for rebounds in the Big Ten, will prove especially threatening on the backboard.
“It just starts off with our effort,” Coffey said. “Just making sure that we are cognizant of where she is and where we need to be to get those rebounds.”
The Cats did a good job of limiting Powers and Jankoska — who are third and fourth in scoring in the Big Ten respectively and combine for 37.5 points per game — in the December contest. The star duo managed just 23 points on 9-of-35 shooting in that game.
Containing these two standouts remains a top priority this coming Sunday.
“Defense, this year especially, has been so important,” junior guard Maggie Lyon said. “Against Michigan State, it’s just holding (Powers and Jankoska) under their average … we don’t want them to get hot, we don’t want them to go off.”
The Cats can’t forget the other side of the equation though. In a rough 73-64 loss against Ohio State last Sunday, NU’s offense got sloppy and recorded 20 turnovers.
This was well above the season average of 16.6 turnovers per contest and a big factor in an NU loss. But the Cats don’t expect a repeat of this peculiar lack of control against the Spartans.
“It was very uncharacteristic of us,” Lyon said. “I think that we lost focus at times during the Ohio State game, but I think we will be right back on track for Michigan State.”
That may have something to do with the fact that the Cats are coming back to Welsh-Ryan after enjoying a bye week. Though NU has won big on the road this year against teams like DePaul and Michigan State, the team believes the weeklong break and home court advantage will prove beneficial.
“It’s such a Northwestern thing to say, but the first week of classes is overwhelming at times and it’s nice to have a lighter load,” Lyon said.
With a week to reflect and focus on their play, McKeown is encouraged, though not content, with the team’s progress thus far.
“There’s more continuity … and they trust each other defensively,” McKeown said. “I think we’re getting there. They buy into what we are teaching.”
And, despite their impressive 12-2 start to the season, Coffey says the Cats are hungry for more.
“Yes, we’ve had some success, but we are not satisfied,” she said. “We keep working hard every day.”
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