Women’s Basketball: Freshman Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah enjoys breakout performance in Northwestern victory

Garrett Jochnau, Reporter

Women’s Basketball

Northwestern didn’t need freshman forward Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah to emerge from her shell Tuesday to enjoy a clean 91-47 victory over Alcorn State.

23 points and 17 rebounds from junior superstar Nia Coffey would have been enough. The same goes for senior guard Maggie Lyon’s 15 points — including 9 of the Cats’ first 12 of the contest.

But in a game that was seemingly decided before tipoff, Kunaiyi-Akpanah’s breakthrough should be the takeaway that allows coach Joe McKeown to sleep well tonight.

“Every day she’s getting better — that’s what we’re looking for,” McKeown said to WNUR Sports. “She does one thing as well as anyone on our team — her and Nia Coffey — and that’s rebound the basketball. So that’s really a big thing for us.”

The post position has undoubtedly been NU’s biggest question mark this season. Alex Cohen, one of the Cats’ starters last season, graduated after a strong tenure at center. Senior forward Christen Johnson has taken over starting post duties, but has largely been a non-factor — not that it’s mattered with Coffey’s brilliant interior play keeping the Cats sharp throughout their non-conference campaign.

But when the Big Ten schedule begins, NU won’t have an easy time masking any deficiencies playing against a loaded conference. And, as evidenced by her 13-rebound, four-steal outing Tuesday against the Lady Braves, Kunaiyi-Akpanah might be the answer.

“I think it’s important across the board just to get as many looks as we can for our (younger) teammates,” Lyon said. “They give it their all in practice every day. They’re just as important on and off the court to us, so I think today they were really rewarded for their hard work.”

The team had high expectations for the freshman post before the season began. At Big Ten Media Day, both Coffey and McKeown raved about her potential and penchant for rebounding.

“Pallas is a rebounding machine,” the coach said prior to the season. “She’s still learning the game.”

However, there was legitimate concern about her offensive rawness, leading McKeown to lean on Johnson’s experience instead in the starting unit.

Tuesday’s contest, though, might indicate a change in direction. Kunaiyi-Akpanah more than doubled Johnson’s playing time and impressed consistently during her 19 minutes on the floor.

She was phenomenal on the boards, helping Coffey set the tone as NU danced away with a 56-39 rebounding advantage.

“We did not rebound how we wanted to in the first half, and so when we went into our locker room, we made the adjustment,” Coffey said.

Kunaiyi-Akpanah was crucial in that mentality shift, grabbing six offensive rebounds and tipping several more to Coffey for second chance opportunities. In both the 2-3 zone and man-to-man defense, she protected the interior and cut off passing lanes, evidenced by her four steals.

And though her lack of experience was still on display, Kunaiyi-Akpanah played a relatively clean game, finishing with just one foul and turnover apiece, and no misses — though she shot the ball just twice and was used sparingly as a scorer, finishing as the only Cat with a sub-10 percent usage rate.

Overall, Tuesday’s rout reaffirmed much of what we already knew about McKeown’s 12th-ranked Cats. The team is primed to be a season-long competitor with Coffey spearheading the campaign.

But it also served as an introduction for many to a fresh-faced newcomer potentially destined to round out the team’s otherwise unblemished starting five.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @GarrettJochnau