By Ari Levin
Northwestern is one game away from a postseason championship.
This matchup might be their toughest test yet. Playing their sixth game in 17 days, the Northwestern Wildcats square off with another red-hot Wildcats team featuring one of the best scorers in the country, and a team that hasn’t had to travel in nearly a month.
How to Listen:
Amit Mallik is in Tucson, Arizona for the call. Tip-off is just after 2 p.m. central on Saturday. You can catch the broadcast on WNUR-FM in the Evanston/Chicago area, or streaming online worldwide.
Line (from SportBet.com): Arizona -7.5; O/U 118.5
Arizona (23-13, 7-11 Pac 12) started the year 12-1, albeit with weak opponents (they ranked No. 316 in non-conference strength of schedule.) At that point, they received a few votes in the AP Poll, but never really threatened for an at-large bid. The highest they ever made it in Charlie Creme’s bracketology was to the First Four Out.
The season was quickly derailed by a 1-5 stretch in the meat of the Pac-12 schedule, followed by a loss to Washington State. They ended the regular season with four consecutive regular-season losses and then a loss to Oregon in the Pac 12 quarterfinals.
The red Wildcats did pick up a couple quality wins along the way over Arizona State and Cal, both in front of huge home crowds. They also lost games in overtime, double overtime, and triple overtime to teams that reached the second round or better of the NCAA Tournament.
But after the rough end to the season, Arizona turned on the jets in the WNIT. Their first two wins were over RPI 100+ teams, but their most recent win over TCU was against a legitimate tournament bubble team. Still, they haven’t quite faced the gauntlet of opponents that Northwestern has.
The x-factor for this game will be the crowd. Arizona averaged 3,153 fans this season, but that number has recently skyrocketed. Arizona has hosted all six games of their WNIT run. They hosted a crowd of 7,717 in the quarterfinal and that ballooned to 10,135 in the semifinal. The McKale Center hosts 14,545 fans and will likely be filled to the brim. Northwestern faces a crowd unlike any they’ve seen in years.
Players to Watch:
Aari McDonald was just named a WBCA Honorable Mention All-American. She is the No. 3 scorer in the country at 24.2 points per game, trailing only Megan Gustafson (Iowa) and Cierra Dillard (Buffalo). The 5-foot-7-inch guard takes a massive number of shots (the most in the country this season) and excels at getting to the free-throw line. She also averages 4.7 assists and 6.4 rebounds per game.
Furthermore, McDonald was named to the Pac-12 All-Defensive Team.
Northwestern needs to contain McDonald to have a chance. She tends to struggle from downtown, shooting just 28.4% while taking more than six per game. And because of her high usage rate, McDonald is prone to turnovers; only eight players in the country have more this season.
Arizona charts as a better offensive than defensive team, averaging 68.6 points and allowing 61.4. Their best win of the year came by holding Arizona State to just 39 points.
Arizona is the rare team that starts three forwards, led by Pac-12 All-Freshman Team member Cate Reese who averages 11.8 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. Joining her are Dominique McBryde and Sam Thomas, who can both rebound, score in the paint, defend well, and shoot more than the occasional three.
Arizona also has three players who shoot 40% or better on 3-point attempts, but that trio (McBryde, TeeTee Starks, Lucia Alonso) averages just six attempts per game, fewer than McDonald herself. McDonald and Thomas take more than half of the team’s long-ball tries but combine to shoot just 30%.
The bench isn’t very deep for Arizona, but they usually get about 10 minutes out of 6-foot-6-inch freshman Semaj Smith.
Wildcard: Starks shoots just 29% on free-throws. She’s likely to be subbed out late in a close game, giving Northwestern one less shooter to worry about.
Northwestern has a huge task ahead of them in the final game in Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah’s career. They’ve rallied time and time again during this run. But this time, on tired legs and facing a sellout crowd against a great team, the Wildcats have their work cut out for them.