The Daily Northwestern

Women’s Basketball: In change of pace, NU to open with a powerhouse opponent

Lindsey Pulliam dribbles the ball. The sophomore guard scored nine points in the team’s opener against Green Bay.

Lindsey Pulliam dribbles the ball. The sophomore guard scored nine points in the team’s opener against Green Bay.

Daily file photo by Noah Frick-Alofs

Daily file photo by Noah Frick-Alofs

Lindsey Pulliam dribbles the ball. The sophomore guard scored nine points in the team’s opener against Green Bay.

Peter Warren, Sports Editor

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Women’s Basketball

Last year, Northwestern played its home-opener against Oakland and won by 18 points.

In 2015, the Wildcats battled Howard in its home-opener and won by 40 points.

Five autumns prior, Dartmouth visited Evanston for NU’s home-opener and proceeded to lose by 29 to the Cats.

For the past nine years, NU (1-0) has not played any major conference opponent to open its season and has proceed to win all but one of the games by double-digits. However, for the first official game in the new Welsh-Ryan Arena, coach Joe McKeown wanted something different — a tough game against a powerhouse.

“I reached out to Duke, to Tennessee, I was going to reach out to Connecticut,” McKeown said. “I wanted a big game, for our players, to be the first game we played here this year. Duke got back to us right away.”

All three of those teams are ranked — Connecticut at No. 2, Tennessee at No. 11 and Duke at No. 21 — and have combined to appear in 39 Elite Eights since the turn of the melinumum. But the Blue Devils (0-0) will get the honor of playing the first official game at the reopened Welsh-Ryan on Sunday.

While the Blue Devils are at the low end of those three teams in terms of national and historical prevalence, they have a great pedigree.

Coached by Joanne McCallie — who played for Northwestern in the 1980s and was an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention in 1987 — Duke is coming off a 24-9 season and NCAA Tournament appearance. Under McCallie, who has been the head coach of the Blue Devils since 2007, Duke has appeared in 10 NCAA Tournaments, four Elite Eights and won three ACC Championships.

However, the Blue Devils’ two leading scorers from last season are now playing professionally. Junior guard Haley Gorecki is the only returning player who averaged over 10 points per game last season, but the Illinois native did not play the last month and a half of the 2017-18 season with a hip injury.

Duke has not yet played a regular season game, but the Blue Devils did beat Alaska – Anchorage in an exhibition game on Saturday.

The Cats, on the other hand, will enter Sunday with an impressive nonconference road victory already under their belt after they used a late 10-0 rally to beat Green Bay, 57-55, on Tuesday.

Senior forward Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah led NU in scoring and rebounding as she earned her first double-double of the season, scoring 17 points and grabbing 14 rebounds — including six on the offensive glass. However, the senior captain tied for the lowest amount of minutes played by any starter as she picked up four fouls and had to sit for a stretch in the fourth quarter.

“One of the emphasis for me this year is to try not to be in too much foul trouble,” Kunaiyi-Akpanah said. “My style of play is very aggressive so I like to go in there and battle for rebounds and that usually ends up resulting in a foul. Definitely I have to watch how aggressive I’m being and definitely try tone down if (I’m in foul trouble).”

One of the keys McKeown said helped the Cats — who were down by as much as 11 points — get back into the game was a full-court press. McKeown said he does not think the team is experienced enough to be able to run the defense for a “sustained” amount of time.

Sophomore guard Lindsey Pulliam said one of the biggest changes from last year is the depth, and that because there are more players who can sub in and out of the lineup, there is more opportunities to play fast.

“We can try and push the tempo a lot more, get out in transition,” Pulliams said. “We can press a little bit more. We can speed teams up…I think we can bring a lot more tempo to the game and get out in transition more.”

Twitter: @thepeterwarren