Women’s Basketball: Epstein: Northwestern pushed through a taxing 2022-23 campaign, must build from within to return to its winning ways


Daily file photo by Alyce Brown

Sophomore forward Caileigh Walsh attempts a layup. Walsh scored 24 points in the Wildcats’ season-ending loss to Rutgers in the Big Ten Tournament on Wednesday.

Jake Epstein, Assistant Sports Editor

After the departure of program superstar Veronica Burton to the WNBA, Northwestern endured its most difficult campaign of coach Joe McKeown’s tenure.

The Wildcats (9-21, 2-16 Big Ten) suffered a 43-point blowout loss in their season opener at Oregon. The team would go on to lose its next 11 matchups against Power 5 opponents, falling in its first nine Big Ten games.

Sitting at the bottom of the conference and riding an eight-game losing skid into late January, NU clearly had only pride for which to play as the season ran on.

While the Cats could’ve easily capitulated to their fate as an inexperienced outfit facing a stacked conference slate, McKeown’s squad refused to relent, regardless of who lined up across the floor.

Despite its young core, NU committed to a defensive brand of basketball that could frustrate even the most talented of opponents. McKeown drew up various pressing schemes throughout the year, often scrapping his patented Blizzard Defense and causing the Cats to cover every inch of the court off the ball.

NU relied heavily on its veterans to run the backcourt, and graduate student guard Sydney Wood embodied every bit of the Cats’ playstyle. Wood garnered an All Big Ten Defensive Team nod for her propensity to pick off errant passes, as the graduate student led her side in steals.

Senior guard Kaylah Rainey showcased lightning speed whenever she stepped on the floor, and her flashy yet poised presence made her a natural to run the NU offense.

The Cats will miss Wood — and Rainey, if she chooses to depart the program — but the pieces are in place to make significant strides next season.

Sophomore forward Caileigh Walsh can take over a contest and convert from anywhere on the floor. Walsh’s moxie makes her a natural-born leader. She plays with fire and intensity from tip-off to the final horn, and her passion reverberates throughout the team.

Walsh displayed immense maturity throughout the season, taking accountability for her mistakes and serving as her own harshest critic. If NU’s top scorer can shore up her shooting efficiency and stay out of foul trouble, Walsh will dominate the Welsh-Ryan Arena paint for years to come.

Junior forward Paige Mott stepped up her scoring production tremendously in the latter half of the year and rejuvenated a dormant Cats offense. With plenty of off-season training to come, Mott and Walsh will look to become a one-two post punch that opposing coaches would fear to face.

A rim-protector who was featured in spurts this season may see a significant elevation in her role in the next campaign. Sophomore forward Mercy Ademusayo towers over most opponents, which makes her an elite shotblocker. If she develops more offensive polish, McKeown will look to Ademusayo to log crucial minutes off the bench in 2023-2024.

While the frontcourt for next season is likely settled, several young guards may work their way into the starting backcourt, serving up much promise in Evanston next winter.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in the NU rotation this season was sophomore guard Jillian Brown’s relegation to the bench. Brown was expected to fill a significant offensive void for the Cats but lost her starting spot early in the season. While she didn’t live up to the preseason hype, Brown displayed significant efficiency from the foul line and spurts of shooting brilliance. With regained confidence, Brown will be back next season with a vengeance.

Every time she saw the floor, freshman guard Caroline Lau gave NU fans something to cheer for. Lau possesses slick handles and can extend the floor with seemingly limitless range. McKeown described the freshman guard as a “gym rat,” and Lau will likely push to be the Cats’ primary ball handler next season.

Sophomore guard Hailey Weaver personified relentless effort — both on and off the ball — jumping the passing lanes and causing opposing offenses headaches whenever she saw game action. Weaver’s commitment to defensive hoops and risk-taking tendencies may allow her to fill Wood’s position next season.

With three new recruits entering the fold next year, NU and its fresh faces will look to shake up the Big Ten landscape. Combo guard Casey Harter will provide high-end backcourt size to coalesce McKeown’s defensive scheme, while frontcourt ammunition will come in the form of center Rachel Mutombo and forward Crystal Wang.

Ever since McKeown arrived in Evanston, losing hasn’t been in his DNA. The veteran coach has notched 250 wins in his 15-year tenure at NU, and his players seem to buy into his message. While his team went through its fair share of rough patches this season, McKeown surely can put back the pieces and turn things around in the next campaign.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @jakeepste1n

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