Women’s Basketball: Real season starts now for Northwestern
January 7, 2017
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The beginning of Big Ten play has not been kind to the Wildcats.
After rolling through the non-conference slate with 11 wins, Northwestern (13-4, 2-2 Big Ten) has run into a roadblock recently. In its past two games, the Cats fell to a pair of ranked teams — No. 11 Ohio State 94-87 at home Tuesday and No. 3 Maryland 96-65 on Saturday — and missed out on an opportunity for a statement win early in the season.
Additionally, just one of NU’s four conference games has been a comfortable win. The Cats downed Purdue 76-60 in late December, but their 4-point win over an unimposing Nebraska squad was a lot closer than expected. For a team trying to make the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years, NU hasn’t had the greatest start to conference play.
Luckily for the Cats, everything gets easier from here.
“It’s early in the Big Ten season,” coach Joe McKeown said. “Playing Ohio State and Maryland back-to-back is a challenge for every team. We consider ourselves really good.”
While the past two losses have been deflating, NU plays neither the Buckeyes nor the Terrapins again this season. Other than Michigan, which NU plays just once, the remaining opponents are relatively modest.
Michigan State’s and Minnesota’s rosters have turned over following the graduation of respective stars Aerial Powers and Rachel Banham. Rutgers, meanwhile, lost both Kahleah Copper and Rachel Hollivay.
The subpar quality of of the middle-of-the-pack Big Ten teams allows for NU to contend for a top-four conference record and a double-bye in March’s conference tournament. At the very least, the Cats should finish with a much higher ranking than their dismal 12-seed last season.
But in order for that to happen, NU can’t come out flat against mediocre opponents like it did against Maryland, when it shot just 26.7 percent from the field and committed 10 turnovers in Saturday’s first half. Although the Terrapins are one of the best teams in the country, the Cats’ lackluster shooting isn’t a formula for success against anyone.
“We weren’t able to get out in transition because they were making shots,” McKeown said of Saturday’s first-half play. “(We) couldn’t get (senior forward Nia Coffey) the ball where she could put it on the floor and attack. That was hard; we just couldn’t score.”
With the Big Ten’s new 16-game schedule, down from 18 a year ago, each contest is more important for NU as there is less room for error. With a quarter of the schedule in their rearview mirror and just twelve games remaining, the Cats can’t afford to let any more opportunities slip.