Women’s Basketball: No. 24 Northwestern’s loss to Nebraska shows improvements needed with four games left


Joshua Hoffman/Daily Senior Staffer

Joe McKeown speaks to his player on the sideline. No. 24 Northwestern lost 71-64 to Nebraska on Wednesday night, the team’s second straight defeat.

Drew Schott, Web Editor

Women’s Basketball

As senior guard Jordan Hamilton’s three-point shot missed the basket and fell into the hands of Nebraska’s Isabelle Bourne, the Cornhuskers put the finishing touches on one of their best wins of the 2020-21 campaign.

For the second time this season, a ranked Northwestern squad was upset by Nebraska. Wednesday’s 71-64 loss will likely drop the No. 24 Wildcats out of the AP Top 25 for the first time since Jan. 2020.

The defeat marked the fifth loss of NU’s season in 16 games and second straight to an unranked opponent. The team now sits in fifth place in the Big Ten and with only four games remaining, including matchups against No. 9 Maryland and No. 11 Michigan, its chances of winning back-to-back regular season Big Ten titles are very nearly gone.

The Cats have shown they can beat top teams, evidenced by their upset victory of then-No. 11 Ohio State. However, two losses to Nebraska, a 16-point loss to Rutgers and double-digit defeats to ranked Michigan and Indiana signify that the road back to a title — especially in a conference with some of the best talent in women’s college basketball — is not easy.

“We’re gonna get everybody’s best every day,” senior guard Lindsey Pulliam said. “We have a target on our back now.”

Winning a conference championship for the first time in 30 years will do just that. NU rolled through the Big Ten last year, winning 16 games against just two conference losses. The squad boasted one of the one of the best defenses in the conference — holding opponents to 57.1 points per game — and had two of the best scorers in the Big Ten with Abi Scheid and Pulliam, a unanimous All-Big Ten First Team selection.

The Cats returned many key pieces from their championship run in 2020, but are playing in one of the nation’s strongest conferences. The Big Ten’s top three squads have a combined four losses between them and all rank in the top 14, while nine programs hold a record of .500 or better.

NU still remains a defensive force to be reckoned with, holding the best turnover margin in the conference (9.07) and forcing the most opponent turnovers with 21.5. This was evident Wednesday as the Cornhuskers lost the ball 28 times.

However, the offensive end is where struggles from the purple-and-white are becoming glaring. The Cats average 71.4 points per game, but they have not reached the 70-point mark in four games. Against Nebraska, NU shot below 40 percent from the field for the third-straight game with a season-low 32.1 percent performance at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

“We just (had) trouble shooting the ball all night,” coach Joe McKeown said. “We just missed a lot of shots around the basket, had opportunities in transition to really go up 14-15 points. And it didn’t happen.”

Obtaining nearly 30 turnovers clearly improved the Cats’ offense, which scored 26 points off of the miscues. But what hurt NU the most was not finding open looks. In addition to shooting 26.2 percent from the field and 18.2 percent from behind the arc in the second half, the Cats missed half of their layups, erasing as many as 24 extra points.

NU’s rivals from Lincoln were also better on the glass. Nebraska racked up 52 rebounds to the Cats’ 33, with the six-foot-two Bourne grabbing 17 and six-foot-five center Kate Cain snagging eight. Even though Hamilton grabbed 10 boards to secure a double-double, NU’s two tallest players — six-foot-three freshman forward Anna Morris and six-foot-one freshman forward Paige Mott — combined for only four rebounds.

Crashing the boards is crucial for the Cats, as the team has been out-rebounded in all five of their losses. But it’s been difficult, as junior forward Courtney Shaw— currently the Big Ten’s 12th-best rebounder with 7.1 boards per game — is still sidelined with a lower-body injury.

“We got to do a much better job of blocking out,” McKeown said. “We do have a size disadvantage that we make up for by positioning and keeping people off the glass. So that’s a big challenge right now for us.”

With the regular season winding down, McKeown is optimistic in his squad and said his players are “committed to being a championship team.”

They have the chance to prove capable of succeeding far into the Big Ten Tournament with upcoming auditions against the Terrapins and the Wolverines. But first, NU has to get through Illinois and Wisconsin, who recently knocked off the ranked Buckeyes.

It is clear the Cats still have some things to fix before heading into two of the campaign’s most important games. But Pulliam isn’t concerned.

She knows her squad can block out the noise and create some special moments. After all, NU silenced the doubters last season by winning its first conference title since 1990.

“(We’re) just going in focused and playing the game how we want to play it,” Pulliam said, “and not letting other people dictate to us.”

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