Women’s Basketball: Epstein: Northwestern’s defensive scheme gives No. 21 Illinois all it can handle


Angeli Mittal/Daily Senior Staffer

Junior forward Paige Mott looks to the rim to make a bucket. Mott finished with 13 points.

Jake Epstein, Assistant Sports Editor

Northwestern returned home to Welsh-Ryan Arena on a snowy Sunday afternoon and looked to split the season-series with its in-state rival No. 21 Illinois. Although the Wildcats (6-13, 0-9 Big Ten) went toe-to-toe with the Fighting Illini (16-4, 6-3 Big Ten) for all 40 minutes, coach Joe McKeown’s squad ultimately fell short of a ranked-victory and dropped its eighth straight contest.

While NU tends to start games slow and work its way back into matchups, junior forward Paige Mott made her first three shots from the field, and her six early points helped the Cats keep kicking back after each Illinois advance. The Pennsylvania native, who scored a career-high 16 points against Ohio State last Thursday, tallied a team-high 13 points on a 6-of-10 shooting clip Sunday.

“I really just think it’s my teammates putting me in great positions, passing the ball in great places where it’s just easy for me to score,” Mott said. “As you can see from the game, I’m not really making moves — I’m just going straight up to the basket.”

The Fighting Illini entered Sunday’s contest as the nation’s third best three-point shooting team. Coach Shauna Green’s squad made 12-of-28 shots from deep in its home matchup against NU, including four threes apiece in the game’s first and second quarters. The Cats effectively adjusted their perimeter defense, playing more man-to-man schemes and held Illinois silent from beyond the arc in the first frame.

Entering the second quarter, NU trailed by a slim 18-16 margin and turned its defensive pressure up a notch. Graduate student guard Sydney Wood, who helped lead the charge defensively, ran the offense to near perfection. The two-way veteran leader tallied five-first half assists — including a dish to freshman guard Caroline Lau — which put the Cats in the driver’s seat until the half’s close.

“Sydney is back to being an all-conference player like she was two and three years ago,” McKeown said. “(She’s had) this incredible career at Northwestern, and all she knows how to do is win.”

After 12 consecutive contests without a halftime lead, NU held a 31-30 advantage after 20 minutes. With the deep-shooting Fighting Illini converting just 1-of-6 first half threes, the Cats needed to give it their all in the second half.

The third period proved to be one to forget for NU, as the team managed just 10 points and turned the ball over seven times. Despite trailing 47-41 following the third frame, Illinois had yet to discover its range, and a first conference win for the Cats remained up for grabs.

“Something that we preach a lot in practice (is) keeping the ball in front of us,” Wood said. “(We were) keying in on shooters a lot better, which we did a good job of in the game.”

The Cats entered the final quarter looking to chip away at the deficit. NU converted a game-high 8-of-12 field goals in the final frame and held the Illini to a 20% clip from deep on its first five threes.

Sophomore guard Jillian Brown gave a gasp of late hope with a three-pointer off Lau’s career-high fifth assist to bring the game within two points. However, Fighting Illini guard Genesis Bryant hit a dagger off a step-back to put the game to bed, and Illinois escaped Evanston with a 67-64 victory.

“I felt like we had a great game plan, and the players executed,” McKeown said. “Even though we outscored them (in the fourth quarter), we had tough turnovers at the wrong time, and they made some big shots.”

Next up for NU is a non-conference home tilt with Chicago State. The lowly Cougars (1-19) provide an opportunity for the Cats to finally add another notch to the win column.

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Twitter: @jakeepste1n


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