Women’s Basketball: How Northwestern responded from a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad season
March 6, 2020
Two years ago, guard Jordan Hamilton felt like Northwestern was stuck in a pit.
The Wildcats played their 2017-18 season at Evanston Township High School, where the bleachers towered on top of the floor. The fans –– usually fewer than 1,000 at a game –– were right on top of the action and watched NU finish the season 12-20 and second-to-last in the Big Ten standings.
“It just felt like we were in a pit with the crowd on top of your shoulders,” Hamilton said. “It always felt like a road game.”
From there, it seemed like a long climb to the top of the Big Ten.
“Northwestern’s always been looked down upon in sports,” Hamilton said. “It’s taken a lot of patience. Just knowing how tough an area we were in and then getting to where we are, that’s been the coolest thing about being at Northwestern. Seeing the transformation of the team has been surreal.”
NU had only eight active scholarship players on the roster for that 2017-18 campaign, and two of the Cats’ three bench players were centers. After graduating one of the strongest senior classes in program history, NU started two freshman guards, two sophomore forwards and a junior center.
The Cats’ leading returning scorer, junior forward Amber Jamison, took a year away from the program starting in November. So NU relied on inexperienced freshmen guards Jordan Hamilton and Lindsey Pulliam to carry the offense.
Out of necessity, head coach Joe McKeown often played lineups that featured forward Bryana Hopkins running the point, 6-foot-2 forward Abi Scheid playing small forward and center Abbie Wolf playing power forward.
The rest of the picture was even less glamorous.
NU’s locker room was barely big enough to fit the entire team and coaching staff, and postgame press conferences took place in an ETHS classroom. “Courtside seats” were fold-up plastic chairs placed behind a lunch table with a long black tablecloth covering it.
The court was orange and blue, and when NU played Illinois, the floor perfectly matched the Fighting Illini’s color scheme. Shot clocks weren’t installed until right before the season started. Because of technological limitations at ETHS, no games could be broadcasted on the Big Ten Network.
“We asked a lot out of this group when we rebuilt Welsh-Ryan,” McKeown said. “We practiced all over campus, all over everywhere. But that’s helped them. We ran into adversity, and some of how they’ve handled that this year is because of what they went through as freshmen or sophomores.”
Even when NU was at the bottom, McKeown often had the Cats break huddles at the end of practice by chanting “Big Ten champs.” But in non-conference play in 2017-18, NU lost to Chattanooga, Milwaukee, Missouri State and Green Bay. Then the Cats started their Big Ten schedule with a 27-point loss to Minnesota, and a week later they lost by 30 at Michigan State.
After that game against the Spartans, the coaches called a meeting and stressed to the team that they had to start believing they were good enough to win in the Big Ten.
“We told them you belong here,” assistant coach Kate Popovec said. “We recruited you guys for a purpose, and you have the talent to get things done. From there, there was a shift in the confidence level of our kids.”
The Cats started to turn a corner. At the end of January, NU lost by just 3 points against No. 14 Maryland, even after some controversial calls went against the Cats. Hamilton said that was the first sign this group could eventually win the Big Ten one day.
“Nobody expected us to be in that game like that against Maryland,” Hamilton said. “We had high hopes after that. It was challenging, but eventually we always thought that we could win every game even though it didn’t appear that way to other people.”
“As much as you hate moral victories, we were like, ‘We should have beat Maryland,’” Popovec said. “With this group, it wasn’t a burden to have to go out and play a game and get killed. We really thought we could win every game.”
After that game, Maryland head coach Brenda Frese went up to McKeown and told him NU’s young stars had a bright future ahead of them. The Cats ended the season on a high note, winning their final two home games of the season. NU beat Rutgers on Senior Day, and that result likely kept the Scarlet Knights out of the 2018 NCAA Tournament field.
That win gave the Cats even more reason to believe in its future heading into the offseason.
“We had nothing to play for except ruining Rutgers’ season,” Wolf said. “That was really special. A lot of that season was really a grind without too many highlights, so that Rutgers game was something to remember.”
The rest of this team’s story is well known: a major step forward in Big Ten play in 2018-19 capped by a run to the WNIT Final and a Big Ten regular season title in 2020.
Heading into this weekend’s Big Ten Tournament and the NCAA Tournament in March, NU is looking to put the finishing touches on a long, impressive journey.
“We’ve been through a lot of adversity over the last four years,” McKeown said. “And we’ve come out of it.”