Women’s Basketball: Northwestern claws back, edges Illinois 68-67

Claire Hansen, Reporter

Northwestern (14-4, 4-3 Big Ten) can breathe easy after squeaking past a tough Illinois (11-8, 2-5) team in Champaign on Thursday night.

The Wildcats came back from a 10-point deficit in the second half to pull out a 68-67 win over the Fighting Illini, breaking the Cats’ two-game losing streak.

“We knew how important this game was, and we also knew how important it was to fight no matter what,” said sophomore guard Christen Inman. “Our ultimate goal was to play forty minutes tonight.”

The Fighting Illini and the Cats jostled for the lead in the opening minutes of the first period. After Illinois secured a couple of three-point leads, NU responded. The Cats went on two explosive runs, the second of which — a 52-second, 7-0 streak — put them up 30-17 with 5:36 remaining in the first half.

That momentum didn’t last long, however. As NU’s offense went dead, the Fighting Illini came roaring back, going on a 13-0 run to knot the game at 30-30.

Inman finally hit a jumper at 1:51 to quiet the home crowd, and NU took a 36-33 lead into halftime.

But the advantage was a tenuous one, with the Cats shooting just 38.2 percent in the first half, along with a subpar 30.8 percent rate from beyond the arc.

And it really hurt when Illinois came out hot from the half, netting 11 of the first 16 points in the second period. Inman hit a 3 to tie the game at 44, but a series of turnovers and missed shots by the Cats gave Illinois the window it needed to pull away, leading to a 54-44 score with 11:02 left.

Refusing to bow to the Fighting Illini’s smothering defense, NU began to claw back, methodically shaving down the deficit. Junior guard Maggie Lyon nailed a 3-pointer at 2:31 to tie the game at 64 — the 10th tie of the night.

In the final minute, it was all Inman. The guard hit a jumper and two free throws to give the Cats a four-point lead. Despite an Illinois buzzer-beating three-pointer, NU would win 68-67.

“I was just really proud of our team, we were down by 10 and came back and really kept our poise when Illinois came at us,” coach Joe McKeown said.

When the Cats were trailing by ten, McKeown said that he told his team to make it a possession game and try to get three stops in a row.

Yet, despite the team’s clear resilience, McKeown acknowledged that other areas of NU’s play Thursday could have been stronger.

“I was disappointed that we didn’t take better care of the ball,” he said. “It’s something we need to work on.”

Illinois, who ranked first in turnover margin in the Big Ten before Thursday’s game, forced the Cats to lose possession 21 times. However, NU caused some serious damage of their own, forcing 24 Fighting Illini turnovers.

Statistically, Illinois’ offensive Thursday was superior, edging the Cats in both field goal percentage and shots from beyond the arc.

“They made a lot of threes tonight, you’ve got to give them credit,” McKeown said. “They made threes from a lot of different players.”

NU’s offensive was productive as well, and, above all, balanced. Inman, Lyon, senior Alex Cohen, and sophomore Nia Coffey all netted double-digit figures, tallying 18, 14, 14 and 13 points respectively. Lyon led the pack with seven rebounds, followed by Cohen with six.

Inman says that fighting back and winning this game demonstrated the program’s progress.

“It shows our growth, especially for the sophomores who started as freshmen, we have a year under our belt,” she said. “Everyone’s a year older. We’ve learned from our past mistakes and past games and learned to fight even when things get tough.”

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Twitter: @clairechansen