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Women’s Basketball: After disappointing season, decorated seniors look to lead Northwestern back to the NCAA Tournament

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Women’s Basketball: After disappointing season, decorated seniors look to lead Northwestern back to the NCAA Tournament

Ashley Deary hounds a ball-handler. The guard is one of the three senior starters for Northwestern who will form the backbone of the team in 2016-17.

Ashley Deary hounds a ball-handler. The guard is one of the three senior starters for Northwestern who will form the backbone of the team in 2016-17.

Daily file photo by Keshia Johnson

Ashley Deary hounds a ball-handler. The guard is one of the three senior starters for Northwestern who will form the backbone of the team in 2016-17.

Daily file photo by Keshia Johnson

Daily file photo by Keshia Johnson

Ashley Deary hounds a ball-handler. The guard is one of the three senior starters for Northwestern who will form the backbone of the team in 2016-17.

Cole Paxton, Assistant Sports Editor

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Women’s Basketball


Last year, Nia Coffey, Ashley Deary and Christen Inman combined to average about 47 points, 17 rebounds and 12 assists per game on a team that went just 4-14 in Big Ten play.

Now seniors, Coffey, Deary and Inman are the undisputed stars on a Northwestern team that enters the season with moderate expectations, sitting on the periphery of the national rankings and early NCAA Tournament projections. If the three cornerstones of coach Joe McKeown’s signature recruiting class are to add to their legacy by making a second tournament, they will almost certainly need to lead the way.

“They’ve had great careers,” McKeown said. “Now being leaders, captains, it’s a new identity for them, and I feel like they’re doing a great job taking on that responsibility.”

The triumvirate of playmakers was highly acclaimed before any of the three played in a college game. ESPN ranked Coffey a top-25 player and had Inman not far behind. Deary was a top-20 point guard, and the class overall was ranked second-best in the Big Ten.

Once they arrived, the trio quickly helped turn around a program that has historically struggled. The Wildcats hadn’t appeared in the NCAA Tournament since 1997, but with Coffey, Deary and Inman all starting as freshmen, the team made the WNIT. A year later, the trio helped push NU into the NCAAs.

“The future is really bright for us. We have people really excited for our program,” McKeown said in March 2015, after the Cats lost in the first round of the NCAAs. “We set a lot of milestones for us to build on.”

That seemed to be the case early last season, as NU raced to a 10-0 start and was ranked as high as No. 12 in the country. The conference season went quite differently, however, as the Cats slumped to a 1-3 start, won just two games in February and finished third to last in the Big Ten.

An impressive run to the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament secured NU’s place in the WNIT, but the Cats were promptly upset in the first round.

“We knew we underperformed, and our thing was to find a way to motivate ourselves to get back there,” Deary said. “This year we’re really eager; we’re really hungry…anything we have to do in order to be prepared for when that time comes again.”

Individual statistics and accomplishments were not the NU’s problem last year. Coffey scored in double figures in every game and averaged a double-double for most of the season before finishing the year with 20.3 points and 9.8 rebounds per game.

Deary shined defensively, averaging more than four steals per game, setting the conference’s single-season steals mark and breaking the team’s all-time career steals record — as a junior. Inman was a consistent scoring threat, boosting her points per game output to 14.5 from 9.3 a season earlier.

The awards came fast and furious. Coffey was an all-conference first team selection and an AP All-American honorable mention choice. Deary was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.

Without much room to improve on their production, the captains all say they have focused on intangibles, like mentorship and unity.

“Even though I wasn’t here this summer, my focus was to act like I was here, to be a presence staying in communication with everyone,” Deary said.

On the court, all three are expected to continue to play to their strengths.

“The basketball part, they are who they are,” McKeown said.

Coffey, a 6-foot-1 forward, can handle the ball and drive to the basket, but she is similarly adroit at playing in the post and attacking the glass. Deary, a defensive menace, is also an adept passer who had at least 10 assists in eight separate games last season. Inman, a 5-foot-10 wing, is a consistent mid-range threat who scored 25 or more points four times.

All three mentioned improving their outside shooting as a focus in the offseason — NU will need to replace the 3-point production of graduated guard Maggie Lyon.

“That was definitely one of my goals from last season,” Inman said. “That’s something I hope to show off this year.”

Off the court, the three seniors realize this season will help to determine their legacy. Though McKeown said he doesn’t often address that, it is still at the forefront of everyone’s mind.

“I want them to just play. But they know,” McKeown said. “They don’t want their legacy to be, ‘we just played in one tournament, one game.’ There’s some things you don’t even have to say that they get.”

Deary and Inman pushed back against the idea that they faced significant pressure to get back to the NCAAs in their final year in Evanston, saying they are focused more on their own goals. Coffey, however, said she embraces the burden.

“Of course there’s pressure, but I like pressure. If you don’t, you don’t have any expectations,” Coffey said. “We have all the stuff we need to, so having that pressure is going to push us to make sure we stay motivated and keep our eye on the prize of getting back.”

Email: colepaxton2019@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @ckpaxton

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