Joshua Hoffman/The Daily Northwestern
As coach Joe McKeown climbed a ladder to cut the net for the first time in his Northwestern career, he celebrated the only way he knew how.
McKeown lifted both of his hands in the air and slammed them on the rim, as if he was dunking, to the delight of the large crowd below him. The last of more than 20 players and coaches to ascend the ladder, the Philadelphia native snipped the final string of nylon and pulled the net off of the rim. After waving it around triumphantly in the air, McKeown placed the net over his head, symbolically crowning himself and the No. 14 Wildcats Big Ten champions.
That’s right. For the first time in 30 years, NU clinched a share of the conference championship.
Behind 21 points and nine rebounds from senior center Abbie Wolf and a defensive effort that forced 14 turnovers, the Cats (26-3, 16-2 Big Ten) cruised to a 75-58 win over in-state rival Illinois (11-18, 2-16) on Saturday to give NU its first Big Ten title since the 1989-90 season.
Junior guard Lindsey Pulliam, senior forward Abi Scheid and sophomore guard Veronica Burton added 40 combined points as the Cats set a record for program wins in front of a 4,016-person crowd at Welsh-Ryan Arena, its largest for a women’s game since its reopening in the fall of 2018.
“It means the world,” Pulliam said. “It was so awesome to have all that energy in there and have all those people to support us. It obviously makes us play better and makes us give more effort.”
Before the game, NU honored its five seniors: Scheid, Wolf, guard Byrdy Galernik — who made her first start of the season — forward Bryana Hopkins and forward Amber Jamison.
In the opening quarter, the Cats struggled to score down low against the Fighting Illini’s 2-3 zone defense. Illinois tied the game halfway through the first, but NU used a 7-0 run to take a 21-13 lead after 10 minutes. The Cats’ defense — ranked second in the Big Ten — held the Fighting Illini scoreless for the final three minutes and forced four turnovers.
By the time Illinois scored its first points of the second quarter, NU had a 15-point lead. Burton led the way with six points — she finished the game with 13 — as the Cats took a 36-25 lead into halftime with the Welsh-Ryan crowd rocking.
The Fighting Illini showed signs of a possible comeback when it cut NU’s lead to six at the beginning of the third. But then Wolf took over. The Connecticut native scored three and-1 layups in two minutes to spark a 21-6 run for the Cats.
“Coach (Kate Popevec) said before the game, ‘You had, like, 18 and 10 last time. They can’t stop you,’” Wolf said. “Coach said ‘Bury them, bury them,’ so that’s what I tried to do: Go up strong and be physical.”
In the fourth quarter, Pulliam — who finished with 17 points — scored six to extend NU’s lead to 27. Even though Illinois chipped away at the Cats’ lead within the final minutes, the crowd at 2705 Ashland Ave. knew what was going to happen. And so, when the clock struck zero, hundreds of fans stormed the court.
Celebration ensued as players formed a dance circle at center court before receiving purple t-shirts and hats recognizing their achievement. Purple and white streamers rained down from the ceiling as NU received its Big Ten championship trophy.
McKeown, who has spoken highly of the Cats’ fans throughout the season, expressed gratitude to the team’s record-setting crowd.
“I want to thank the greatest fans in the Big Ten,” McKeown said.
Next weekend, NU will head to Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis for the Big Ten Tournament as the No. 2 seed.
Scheid — who finished with 10 points against Illinois — said the Cats’ top priority is to prepare for their first tournament game against either No. 7 Michigan or No. 10 Nebraska.
“(We) play Northwestern basketball,” Scheid says. “Focus on one game at a time and focus on the little things.”
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