By Tim Hackett
It had been 17 days since Northwestern Women’s Basketball last played a game, and that game was a loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament. The Wildcats struggled to really ever get going in Indianapolis, and following that lengthy layover, plenty of questions had risen: could the ‘Cats bounce back? Would they be motivated enough to compete? Could their offense poke some holes in the Dayton defense?
The Wildcats answered all these questions with a resounding “yes” Thursday night in Evanston. Anchored by 26 points from Lindsey Pulliam, another double-double for Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah and a defense in lockdown mode from the opening tip, Northwestern returned to the postseason with a decisive 74-51 trouncing of the Dayton Flyers in the first round of the 2019 WNIT.
The game marked the Wildcats’ first trip to a postseason tournament since their lackluster performance in the 2016 WNIT and was the first postseason win for the program since 2014, when the ‘Cats advanced to the third round of this event. This time around, the Wildcats’ defense led the way, limiting the Flyers to just a 27.4 percent clip from the field, the fourth-lowest total allowed by Northwestern and the third-lowest mark turned in by Dayton all season.
It’s not often that the outcome of a game between two purportedly evenly-matched teams would seem inevitable just minutes into action, but that was the case Thursday night. Jayla Scaife hit a fast-break three to put the visitors up 3-2 1:04 into the game, but Pulliam responded 50 seconds later with a deep shot of her own to put the ‘Cats back on top, and they never looked back. Dayton missed their last 12 shots and failed to score over the final six minutes of the first quarter, and the Cats rolled to a 17-6 advantage.
Both offenses dried up in the second quarter, as three minutes passed without either team managing a single point midway through the frame. But Pulliam poured in two buckets to open the floodgates, and Abi Scheid knocked down a three as part of a 9-0 ‘Cats run to extend the lead to 32-10 with 2:27 to play. Scaife continued her killer first half with a three with five seconds left to play, but Shakeela Fowler was the only other Flyer to make a basket in the first 20 minutes, and the Wildcats headed to the locker room up 39-17.
Northwestern didn’t let up at all after the intermission. Early in the third, Kunaiyi-Akpanah ripped the ball away from Scaife near the Northwestern hoop, and ten seconds later Pulliam converted the steal into a patented midrange pullup. A minute later, Pulliam returned the favor by finding Kunaiyi-Akpanah underneath for an easy lay-in, capitalizing on another Flyer turnover – the ‘Cats forced 16 giveaways and turned them into 23 points. A rebound later in the frame capped off a 17-point, 11-rebound, 5-steal, 3-block night for Kunaiyi-Akpanah, the 17th double-double this season for the senior in what very well could have been her final Northwestern home game.
Dayton went on a mini 5-0 run late in the fourth to claw back within 20 points for the first time since the 3:49 mark of the second quarter, but the ‘Cats answered with back-to-back buckets from reserve players Courtney Shaw and Amber Jamison, putting a bow on a near-perfect performance for Northwestern, who moved on to the second round of the WNIT with a comprehensive 75-51 victory.
Scaife turned in a team-high 24 points on five made threes, but her teammates combined for just nine baskets at a 22 percent clip. On the other side, Pulliam bounced back from one of the most disappointing performances of her college career against MSU with 26 points on 8-of-18 shooting Thursday night, her second-highest output of the year and the 11th time she’s made at least eight buckets in a game. Eight other Wildcats, aside from the two all-conference selections, scored at least two points. Northwestern dominated in steals, assists, points in the paint and second chance points, and never once were they in danger of losing in the first round of the WNIT this time around.
Northwestern head coach Joe McKeown was able to rest most of his centerpiece players in the fourth quarter Thursday, a good sign for the Wildcats’ ability to potentially make a run in this tournament. Their next test will come soon – Northwestern will hit the road to take on Toledo on Sunday in the WNIT second round at 1 p.m. Central. The Rockets eked out a close win over Seton Hall in the first round Thursday, 71-65, with four different players scoring in double figures. Toledo forced 16 Seton Hall turnovers and converted them into a whopping 30 points in the victory. Be sure to tune in to WNUR Sports for the broadcast as the Wildcats look to continue their postseason.