By Ari Levin
The Wildcats are still dancing.
Powered by a late run and clutch free throws, Northwestern (19-14) took down the Ohio Bobcats (30-5) on their home court, 61-58, to advance to the WNIT semifinals.
For the third straight game, the Wildcats overcame a big deficit and trailed for nearly the entire game until the final buzzer. This time, they were ahead for less than three minutes total and trailed by eight entering the fourth quarter. But they led for the only minute that mattered.
“This is what we do. We fight,” said sophomore guard Lindsey Pulliam. “No matter what the score is, we’re just going to keep going at it.”
Pulliam was the clutch performer and ultimately the game decider. She led both teams with 22 points and kept Northwestern in the game in the third quarter, scoring eight of Northwestern’s 10 points in the period. And her clutch free throws sealed the win.
Veronica Burton was another star at the end of the game. In the fourth quarter alone, the first-year guard scored seven points, snatched five rebounds, and dished three assists. She finished with 15 points on just six shots, her second game of the week with an offensive efficiency in the stratosphere.
“My teammates, my coaches, have definitely reminded me to keep shooting no matter what. Whether it goes in or out,” Burton said, hoping she one day embraces the Pulliam mentality.
Coach Joe McKeown decided Burton couldn’t possibly be a first year. A junior, perhaps.
“She’s tough as nails,” he added. He also quipped, “She’s going to keep her scholarship.”
For Ohio, Erica Johnson nearly carried her team to victory. The MAC Freshman of the Year scored 17 points and made a few jaw-dropping plays, including a turnaround 30-foot prayer with an expiring shot clock and a crossover dribble for an and-1 that sent Sydney Wood to the floor.
The Bobcats rank tenth in the country in turnover margin, and this game was no different. They won that battle 21-14. But the Wildcats won the rebounding fight 41-26.
The Wildcats were put in a bad spot midway through the third quarter when Kunaiyi-Akpanah committed her fourth foul. She subbed out and Ohio finished the quarter on a 6-0 run to take an eight-point lead.
Northwestern made the bold decision to put Kunaiyi-Akpanah back in the game with four fouls, as the team’s lone senior played all but one second of the fourth quarter. The move paid off. In the final period, Kunaiyi-Akpanah grabbed seven rebounds, with four coming on offense; Ohio had just four as a team.
“She’s the best rebounder in the Big Ten,” McKeown said of his center. The numbers say he’s not wrong.
Ohio led by five in the final four minutes, when sophomore Jordan Hamilton kick-started a run with a banked 3-pointer.
“Her and I were working on [that shot] in shootaround,” McKeown joked. “That’s all coaching.”
With two minutes left and Ohio up by three, Amani Burke fouled out with 15 points. A minute later with the deficit down to one, the MAC Player of the Year, Cece Hooks, joined her on the bench with a fifth foul. That foul sent Burton to the line, where she made both free throws to give Northwestern their first lead since three minutes in to the game.
Despite losing the turnover battle for the game, the Wildcats forced one when it mattered, winning the ball back up by one with nine seconds left. Pulliam caught the inbound, drew a foul, and easily made both free throws to extend the lead to three.
On the other end, Northwestern surrendered an easy layup that kept them ahead with five seconds left and the ball.
Two more free throws for Pulliam. Nothing but net. Never a doubt.
“We ran out-of-bounds plays to get her the ball to get fouled,” McKeown said. Even though Burton has a better percentage, Pulliam, always cool in the moment, is the go-to in a clutch situation.
Pulliam hit 12 of her 15 free throws in the game. Afterwards, she couldn’t believe she missed that many.
Ohio had a look at the buzzer, but Johnson’s 3-pointer for the tie rimmed out. The Wildcats advanced.
Northwestern now looks to reach the WNIT finals for the first time since 1996, when it took just two wins to get there. This week, they’ll face the winner of Sunday’s match between James Madison (28-5) and Georgetown (19-15).
“Sixty-four teams down to four, that’s pretty good,” her coach said. “That’s some Joe McKeown math.”