Women’s Basketball: Northwestern looks to make a statement against Nebraska


Daily file photo by Owen Stidman

Sydney Wood holds the ball. The freshman guard had a career-high four rebounds in NU’s last contest.

Andrew Golden, Assistant Sports Editor

Women’s Basketball

Seven games into its 2017-2018 Big Ten schedule last season, Northwestern had just lost to Wisconsin and sat at the bottom of the conference at 2-5. This year has been a different story for the Wildcats.

With a year of experience, NU (11-7, 4-3 Big Ten) once again faced the Badgers in its seventh game, this time blowing them out 72-46 on Sunday and putting the Wildcats firmly in the middle of the conference standings at 4-3. The Cats now sit just a game back of second place but also are only a game ahead of the eighth-place Michigan State at 3-4.

On Thursday, NU will have a chance to separate itself from the middle of the pack on the road against Nebraska (9-9, 4-3). Like the Wildcats, the Cornhuskers sit at 4-3 in the conference, along with Indiana, who NU beat last week.

“We’re hanging in there pretty good,” coach Joe McKeown said about his team’s performance thus far. “I think if you asked the other 13 Big Ten coaches, they’d say the same thing right now. That how crazy our league is…the Big Ten right now is a monster in basketball.”

Both teams are trending in the same direction, as both have a two-game win streak including one win against a ranked opponent. McKeown said his team has come out with a lot of intensity in its last two matchups.

Thursday’s showdown between the two teams will be a matchup of strengths — the Wildcats’ defense versus Nebraska’s offense.

“We’re starting to learn how to play with each other,” McKeown said after beating Wisconsin. “I thought we did a great job at Indiana of coming out of the box ready to play. To play defense like we did in the second quarter, just says a lot about how we’re improving.”

In conference games this season, NU leads the Big Ten with scoring defense (57.6 points per game), field goal percentage defense (36.2 percent) and 3-point defense (27.7 percent). Even in their most recent game against the Badgers, the Cats held Wisconsin to 46 points, their third Big Ten game holding an opponent below 50 points.

On Sunday, NU relied on key performances from senior forward Pallas Kuniayi-Akpanah, who finished the game with 15 rebounds and three blocks. Sophomore guard Lindsey Pulliam and freshman guard Veronica Burton added three steals each.

On the other hand, Nebraska comes into the game ranked fifth in scoring (68.3) and fourth in 3-point field goal percentage (36.4), and the Cornhuskers lead the league with 48 3-pointers made in conference games. Nebraska gets most of its 3-point production from guard/forward Taylor Kissinger, who leads the Big Ten with a 49.4 3-point shooting percentage.

McKeown preaches to his team that the key to success defensively is stopping the opposing team’s top two players. The problem for NU is that, on offense, the Cornhuskers don’t rely on one player specifically.

None of Nebraska’s players rank in the top 30 of the Big Ten in scoring. Forward Leigha Brown and guard Sam Haiby are both leading the team by averaging 10.3 points per game. As a supporting cast, the Cornhuskers have six people who scored between 7 and 9.5 points per game this season.

“Everybody’s a good team,” McKeown said. “We’re playing Nebraska, who was in the NCAA Tournament last year (and) was in the preseason Top 25. Our message is: It’s about us and how we prepare every game.”

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