Women’s Basketball: Epstein: Weaver and Walsh propel Northwestern to second conference win


Aria Wozniak/The Daily Northwestern

Sophomore guard Hailey Weaver attempts an inside shot. Weaver tallied a career high six steals against Minnesota on Saturday.

Jake Epstein, Assistant Sports Editor

Nearing the culmination of conference play, the grueling Big Ten schedule stoutly separated the contenders from the pretenders. Though both Northwestern and Minnesota appeared far from the contender label — with both sides already having faced the gauntlet of the conference’s elite — the two set for a Saturday afternoon tip-off at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

“We’re as good as anybody in the Big Ten for 30 minutes,” coach Joe McKeown said. “We just haven’t (executed for) 40 minutes, and that was the message today.”

The Wildcats (9-18, 2-14 Big Ten) took a key step towards escaping the Big Ten’s basement in a crucial 76-62 conference victory over the Golden Gophers (10-17, 3-13).

Sophomore forward Caileigh Walsh wasted no time making an impact, canning a pull-up triple on the contest’s primary possession before halting an early 5-0 Minnesota run with a post score. The sophomore showcased her passing ability, finding junior forward Paige Mott in the paint for a go-ahead bucket, granting NU a 7-5 lead.

The Golden Gophers scored five consecutive points headed into the first media timeout and led 14-11 with four minutes of first frame action remaining, but freshman guard Caroline Lau converted a layup in her first possession on the floor. While Minnesota guard Katie Borowicz provided an instant three-point response, Lau knocked down a corner three of her own. Sophomore forward Mercy Ademusayo then rattled off four points, putting the Cats in front 20-19.

In the final minute of the first period, McKeown dialed up a relentless press. Sophomore guard Hailey Weaver intercepted a Golden Gopher pass and sank a transition layup, propelling NU into a 22-19 lead after 10 minutes of play.

“We caught them off guard a little bit,” McKeown said. “We did a good job of hustling.”

Walsh started the Cats’ second period scoring with a layup, courtesy of a Lau dish. After cooling off for two minutes and ceding the lead to Minnesota, Walsh worked her way to the foul line, sinking 1-of-2 and tying the game at 25. Weaver then missed from in close but clawed the ball back and scored a two-pointer, giving NU a 27-25 advantage with seven minutes left in the second quarter.

Weaver once again displayed her ability to turn defense into instant offense with two minutes left in the quarter, getting a paw in the passing lane to register her fourth steal of the game before scoring a driving layup to put the Cats in front 33-29.

“Before this game we put a big emphasis on transitioning that steal to offense,” Walsh said. “We did a really good job, especially Hailey.”

Minnesota coach Lindsay Whalen’s team worked its way back to level the contest at 33, but Lau received the rock in the half’s waning seconds and finished a layup to settle a 35-33 halftime lead.

Coming out of the locker room, McKeown’s squad returned to the floor with a newfound swagger. Mott began the third frame with a 2-of-2 trip to the charity stripe, and Walsh powered her way inside for an easy layup. Graduate student guard Sydney Wood extended NU’s hot start, driving inside for a smooth finish through stingy defense.

Whalen had seen enough of the Cats’ offensive exploits, calling a timeout after Walsh’s post move culminated in a score that capped an 8-0 run. With 7:35 remaining in the third quarter, NU found itself in front, 43-33.

Walsh continued to cook in the lane, pulling a spin to carry her scoring tally to 14.

With just under three minutes left in the third frame, Wood picked up her fourth steal of the afternoon, and senior guard Kaylah Rainey capitalized on the takeaway, extending the margin to 13.

Lau closed the third frame by knocking down 2-of-2 free throws, and the Cats carried a 57-45 edge into the final 10 minutes of the game.

Like a ball-hawking defensive back, Weaver lived inside the Golden Gopher passing lanes, notching her sixth steal of the game to kickstart the final frame.

“Being in the passing lanes and pressuring the ball is what I’m good at,” Weaver said. “It just turned into steals today.”

Two minutes later, Weaver kicked to Walsh for an inside score, stretching the gap to 17.

Walsh’s commanding performance on both sides of the court closed with just under two minutes to play. The sophomore forward tallied a team-high 22 points on 8-of-13 shooting, helping NU cruise to a 76-62 home victory.

The Cats will play their final home contest Thursday against Wisconsin. McKeown’s squad hopes to sweep the season series after knocking off the Badgers on the road in January.

“If you polled the coaches — and they told the truth — they would say I don’t want to play Northwestern,” McKeown said. “We’re the team nobody wants to play. When we get to the (Big Ten) tournament, we can be tough.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @jakeepste1n

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