By Kevin Sweeney
The wide open nature of this year’s Big Ten was bound to bring lots of surprise outcomes in Indianapolis this week for the Big Ten Tournament.
The first upset of the tournament came early Thursday afternoon when #8 Northwestern was topped by #9 Michigan State 68-52 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. With the loss, the Wildcats fall to 16-14 on the season and will learn their postseason fate regarding a potential WNIT bid next weekend.
The Spartans came out of the gates firing on all cylinders, shooting 50% from the field and 5-9 from downtown in the first half to take a 39-34 lead into intermission. With star guards Jordan Hamilton and Lindsey Pulliam struggling to get going, Northwestern looked to their bigs to hang in. Abi Scheid hit three shots from downtown in the first quarter with the Wildcat offense sputtering, and Abbie Wolf gave Northwestern a massive lift off the bench on her 21st birthday after Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah went to the bench with a pair of fouls. Wolf posted 9 first-half points on a perfect 4-4 shooting.
“Abbie Wolf has had the best second half of the Big Ten that would could even draw up ourselves,” Joe McKeown said. “She has become such a threat on the block.”
The lift from Wolf off the bench kept Northwestern within striking distance at the break, trailing 39-32 despite the hot shooting from the Spartans.
The Wildcats came out of the gates in the second half on fire, using an 8-0 run and getting some stops on the defensive end to take a 40-39 lead with less than 6 minutes to play in the 3rd quarter. Pulliam even got in on the action with her first bucket of the night, and everything was headed in the Wildcats’ favor.
Unfortunately for the ‘Cats, the hot start wouldn’t continue. MSU star guard Shay Colley drained a deep three on the left wing to give the Spartans back the lead, and the Spartans never relinquished that edge.
MSU went on a 26-6 run spanning from Colley’s shot into the fourth quarter, as Northwestern couldn’t find a way to get the offense going and the Spartans ran away with the game.
“I think at times we let our offense effect our defense,” McKeown said.
Hamilton and Pulliam combined to shoot just 2-26 from the field in the ballgame, an uncharacteristic performance for the sophomore duo that has carried this team so many times this season.
The ‘Cats were led by Wolf’s 15 points, along with 11 points and 8 rebounds for senior Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah and a stat-sheet-stuffing 10 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists for Veronica Burton.
Colley led the way for the Spartans with 14 points and was one of four players in double figures for MSU. The Spartans will take on Maryland tomorrow at 11am central.
With the potential for a postseason run ahead, Northwestern can feel good about the improvement they made from last season despite several tough injuries and close losses. The ‘Cats more than doubled their conference win total from last year and have a young core to build around in the backcourt with Burton, Hamilton, and Pulliam.
“We’ve got a great foundation right now,” McKeown said. “We ended up .500, 9-9. It could have easily been 12-6, and hopefully we’ll be able to do that next year in the league.”
We’ll have all the coverage of a potential postseason run for the ‘Cats right here on WNUR Sports!