Women’s Basketball: Abbie Wolf attempts to fill Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah’s void

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Daily file photo by Katie Pach

Abbie Wolf puts up a layup. The senior center will take Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah’s place in the starting lineup this season.

Benjamin Rosenberg, Web Editor


Women’s Basketball


Joe McKeown has compared Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah’s rebounding ability to Moses Malone and Dennis Rodman. He said he’s coached “very few players” like her. He described her as “different.”

Now Kunaiyi-Akpanah is playing professionally in Italy, and it will be a tall order — literally and figuratively — for Northwestern to replace her production. Asked this week how the Wildcats plan to replicate Kunaiyi-Akpanah’s rebounding prowess, NU’s 12th-year coach replied quite simply, “you don’t.”

“What (her graduation) does is it creates opportunities for other players to step up,” McKeown said. “Nobody’s going to put up those numbers individually, it’s got to be a team thing. She tried to get every rebound, in practice, shootaround, in pickup games, anything. There’s nobody like her that I’ve ever been around in basketball.”

Senior center Abbie Wolf will have the most opportunities as she becomes a first-time starter this year. Wolf served as Kunaiyi-Akpanah’s primary backup for the last two years, and said she learned a lot from her and they remain close friends.

Although she started just once, Wolf appeared in all 36 games last season, averaging 14 minutes per contest, putting up 5.3 points and 3.4 rebounds per game.

But those numbers do not tell the full story. Wolf improved significantly as the season progressed and her usage increased. When Kunaiyi-Akpanah got into early foul trouble in a game at Michigan, Wolf played a season-high 29 minutes and finished with a double-double — 17 points on 8-for-9 shooting and 13 boards.

“I’m really proud of her,” McKeown said. “She’s a senior, she’s played a lot of big minutes for us, made a lot of contributions, had some big games. I just want to see her have a great senior year. She gives us a different dimension, because of her size, than Pallas.”

Wolf is taller than Kunaiyi-Akpanah — 6-foot-4 to the Nigeria native’s 6-foot-2. McKeown said Wolf’s height gives her the ability to score with her back to the basket and to rebound the ball in traffic.

The Cats will need her to do both of those things well. NU is extremely thin on frontcourt depth — 11 of their 15 players are listed as guards. Wolf will likely start in the frontcourt alongside senior forward Abi Scheid, but beyond the two of them, only senior forward Bryana Hopkins has played meaningful minutes.

“It’s just going up and getting the rebound, knowing that I’m the tallest player on the floor and I need to utilize my height and strength and experience now,” Wolf said. “Just having that patience as well in the post, on offense, faking out, being a little crafty now that I have some more freedom this year.”

Wolf is looking to improve her game away from the rim as well. While she said she is a consistent shooter in practice, she shot just 46 percent from the free throw line last season. Developing a stronger outside shot would force defenses to get extended, opening up driving lanes for the Cats’ guards.

Wolf and Kunaiyi-Akpanah lived together last year, and Wolf said they would scout their future opponents together at their house. She said Kunaiyi-Akpanah taught her to bring maximum intensity and focus to every play.

Although Wolf is not a team captain, she said she has still become a vocal leader on defense, just as Kunaiyi-Akpanah was a year ago.

“I’ve always been a hard worker myself, but pushing others in the locker room and on the court is something I’ve tried to do and continue working on,” Wolf said. “It’s easier and more natural for a senior player to do that. I’ve definitely grown into being consistent with talking and bringing the younger girls up.”

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Twitter: @bxrosenberg

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