Women’s Basketball: Northwestern’s frontcourt gets deeper, but questions remain

Benjy Apelbaum, Reporter

Women’s Basketball

As the fight for minutes in Northwestern’s muddled frontcourt ramps up, so do the questions.

Last year’s Wildcats lacked a strong interior presence after the graduation of Alex Cohen, and a disappointing performance from senior Christen Johnson resulted in NU being outrebounded by an average of 2.6 boards per game. The emergence of now-sophomore Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah later in the season was a pleasant surprise for the team, but a lack of depth and experience made the center spot a weakness.

This season, the Cats appear to have the opposite problem, as multiple new and returning faces will vie for the starting center position and to backup senior Nia Coffey at forward.

“We have a bigger group this year, a lot of big players,” Kunaiyi-Akpanah said. “We definitely can be more of a threat when it comes to in the paint and rebounding.”

The new frontcourt additions include junior Oceana Hamilton, who sat out last year after transferring from Alabama. Somewhat surprisingly, coach Joe McKeown started Hamilton ahead of Kunaiyi-Akpanah in the team’s exhibition game against Illinois-Springfield. Freshman center Abbie Wolf will likely back up Hamilton and Kunaiyi-Akpanah at center, while freshman forward Abi Scheid could have a chance to earn minutes behind Coffey.

Perhaps the biggest X-Factor coming into this season will be the play of senior forward Lauren Douglas. Douglas was forced to take a medical redshirt last season, and her career 34 percent 3-point shooting average could help fill the outside shooting hole left by the graduation of Maggie Lyon.

“I think I bring experience,” Douglas said. “I’ve been around this program for four years, going on five, so I know how everything works. Just teaching the younger kids and providing a spark wherever we need it.”

With Douglas and Cohen gone last season, Kunaiyi-Akpanah seized the opportunity and went on to start the last 19 games of the season. During conference play, she was eighth in the Big Ten with 8.9 rebounds per game. She was most known for aggressively attacking the offensive glass, finishing second in the conference with 3.8 per game in Big Ten games.

“She works really hard, trying to work on things that she needs to get better,” McKeown said. “More importantly, (she) just understands now what the Big Ten is like, how long the seasons will be and just set her goals really high. She’s rebounding. She tries to get every rebound. Coaches love that.”

However, Kunaiyi-Akpanah struggled defensively last season due to her tendency to get in foul trouble. She fouled out of three games and collected four fouls in eight others. Once Kunaiyi-Akpanah was out of the game, McKeown struggled to replace her size and rebounding ability.

This year, McKeown will likely be able to look down his bench and see multiple players who can provide NU with a much-needed interior presence.

“Last year if we got in foul trouble inside, we just had trouble replacing that person with somebody else that could sustain some things in the paint,” McKeown said. “It’s going to be by committee sometimes. They’re all trying to earn it in practice, so competition’s great.”

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