Women’s Basketball: Despite ugly February, Wildcats enter Big Ten Tournament with confidence


Daily file photo by Katie Pach

Joe McKeown motions from the sideline. The coach is optimistic about Northwestern’s chances in the conference tournament despite a poor February showing.

Cole Paxton, Assistant Sports Editor

Women’s Basketball

Northwestern’s February lowlights included a 38-point output against Indiana, a four-game losing streak and a 34-spot drop in the RPI.

If the Wildcats (19-10, 8-8 Big Ten) open March that way, their season will be over in a blink.

However, with Thursday’s Big Ten Tournament opener against Iowa (17-12, 8-8) in Indianapolis approaching, coach Joe McKeown and NU players are confident in the possibility of a deep tournament run.

“I’m really excited, because in the tournament you never know what’s going to happen,” senior forward Nia Coffey said. “We showed a lot of heart in our last game and we’re going to build off that and keep moving forward.”

That last game, however, was a loss. The Cats responded from a halftime deficit Sunday at Purdue with a 15-0 run spanning the third and fourth quarters, but went scoreless in the final 1:55 and gave up a game-winning layup to guard Andreona Keys with a fraction of a second remaining.

It was NU’s fifth loss of the month and the latest in an extended 10-game stretch in which the team failed to top 70 points, beat only opponents with records far below .500 and fell out of NCAA Tournament contention.

But the Cats said they are not feeling sorry for themselves. Sophomore guard Amber Jamison said she views the conference tournament as an opportunity.

“We need to go out here and play our best as a team and just show that our conference record doesn’t necessarily define who we are,” Jamison said. “We can play much better than we did in the conference.”

NU has shown flashes of being better than a middling team in a below-average Big Ten. The Cats pulled a stirring upset of then-No. 16 Florida in November, nearly knocked off then-No. 11 Ohio State in early January and picked up impressive wins, three days apart, against NCAA Tournament contenders Indiana and Michigan State.

Those wins came in NU’s first two games after the death of sophomore guard Jordan Hankins.

“We’ve had to deal, as a team and as a program, with a lot of adversity,” McKeown said. “Being able to play … it’s given our players a chance to really be united and focused. … That’s the most important thing we can do: play and have fun.”

The Cats’ return to Indianapolis — Hankins’ hometown — will likely be an emotional one for the team. She played some of her best basketball in last year’s Big Ten Tournament, including a 14-point output against Minnesota.

As a team last year, NU broke out from a grim 4-14 Big Ten season to win three games in three days and reach the tournament semifinals as the No. 12 seed. That unexpected success leads NU to believe a third-straight deep run could be on the horizon.

“It definitely shows us that we are more than capable,” Coffey said. “It just gives us the confidence to let us know that when we work hard, follow the scout, work together, we can make it to the finals of this tournament.”

To make such a run, NU will first need to get past Iowa. Past results make that a bleak proposition for the Cats: The Hawkeyes won the lone regular season meeting 78-59. Moreover, NU hasn’t beat a higher-ranked opponent since Jan. 17 and the Cats’ only two Big Ten wins away from home came against the conference’s two worst teams.

The late-January meeting included a particularly poor defensive performance from NU, which sent Iowa to the free throw line 26 times and gave up more points than in any of its last nine games.

But as they have all season, the Cats said they are are optimistic, not concerned, about their prospects.

“We have to go to work on cleaning up the things we didn’t do well in that game,” McKeown said. “They can score. It was a game of runs. We have to be more consistent against them defensively.”

NU’s season has been a difficult one — “a season of ups and downs,”  senior guard Ashley Deary said last week — and is on track to be an underwhelming conclusion to the careers of the Cats’ exceptional seniors, fronted by Coffey, Deary and guard Christen Inman. Barring a shocking Big Ten Tournament championship, NU likely awaits a berth in the WNIT.

Inman, though, said she thinks the Cats can reverse their recent fortunes and contend for the conference title.

“Our ultimate goal is to win the tournament,” she said. “The run last year was indicative of what we want to do this year: prove some people wrong and make a statement.”

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Twitter: @ckpaxton