By Amit Mallik
The Wildcats will look to bring home a title on Saturday at Arizona in the WNIT Championship game and raise a banner at the new Welsh-Ryan Arena.
It won’t be an easy task as the Wildcats will face a talented squad backed by the might of the McKale Center faithful, who are expected to deliver the first sell-out in program history for Saturday’s game.
Ari Levin already has you covered with a preview, but here are the three keys to the game for the Wildcats to pull off a victory.
1. Let Aari McDonald Hero-Ball
This could be counter-intuitive. McDonald is one of the most talented players in the country, and was just named an honorable mention All-American for leading Arizona with 24.2 points per game, the third-best mark in the country. She’s the second best player Northwestern will have seen all year outside of Megan Gustafson. I’m certainly not suggesting they give her easy looks or let her get going. But consider these numbers:
When Arizona loses, McDonald scores more points and is responsible for higher percentage of her team’s points. Another way to look at this: Northwestern needs to shut down everyone else and force McDonald to be inefficient.
McDonald is not a fantastic three-point shooter, but she takes more than anyone else on the team. In fact, she’s taken more shots than anyone else in the country this season and 300 more than the next most prolific shooter on the team. She also aggressively gets to the line, averaging seven FTAs per game, the fourth-highest rate in the country. In addition, she almost exclusively goes left. For Big Ten fans, imagine a hyper-aggressive Kenisha Bell with an ultra-green light. Expect a Harden-esque volume of shooting from the redshirt sophomore.
Northwestern will have Veronica Burton, Sydney Wood and Jordan Hamilton available to throw at McDonald. But it’s on Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah, Abi Scheid and Lindsey Pulliam to force McDonald to believe she has chuck it. In a title game, my hunch is McDonald will come out with a killer instinct. The ‘Cats need to leverage that against her.
2. Dominate the Glass
Arizona has a rebounding margin of -1.3, which ranks fourth-worst in the Pac-12 and in the 200s nationally. Northwestern’s margin is +1.7, which was only ninth in the Big Ten, but the Wildcats have the clear advantage here because they have Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah, one of the best rebounders in the country. The senior’s singularly spectacular effort against West Virginia with 10 offensive rebounds kept the ‘Cats alive in their dramatic comeback win.
TCU played Arizona the closest any team has in the WNIT, and the Horned Frogs had a whopping 23 offensive boards on Wednesday night in Tucson. It’s impressive for Aari McDonald, just 5’7″, to rank second on the Wildcats with 6.4 rebounds per game, but it’s also an indictment of their woes on the glass. While Pallas is guaranteed to bring her A-game, Northwestern’s athletic guards will be key again in cleaning up any loose balls.
Tangentially related to this issue is foul trouble. It seems like Northwestern forces other teams into a lot of cheap fouls for holding them down during fights for rebounds. The #B1GCats could use a favorable whistle against an Arizona team that runs seven deep at this time of year. Like West Virginia, Arizona has logged a ton of miles and Northwestern has to see its depth as an advantage. Veronica Burton swung the quarterfinal against Ohio by forcing lead guards Cece Hooks and Amani Burke to foul out late. Aari McDonald picks up half a foul more on average in ‘Zona losses than in wins (see above) and Burton would be well served to get under McDonald’s skin.
3. Execute Down the Stretch
There are three keys you could say generically for any Northwestern Women’s Basketball game. Keep Pallas out of foul trouble. Don’t the turn ball over. Get Lindsey Pulliam to shoot efficiently. Those are baselines for this Wildcat team, and when two of the three aren’t met, Northwestern’s odds of winning decrease significantly.
Barring an incredibly hot display of shooting, both of these teams should be evenly matched in a title game with a lot of adrenaline. You can chalk it up to the way Northwestern plays. The Toledo, James Madison and Ohio games were all close and required an epic comeback.
The same team that fumbled away opportunities—at Rutgers, at Michigan, at Minnesota and to Purdue, at home and on the road—capitalized on its late-game opportunities in this WNIT. Some of that is reversion to the mean in close game luck and some of it is increased experience from a battle-tested Northwestern squad. By my count, NU is 7-6 in games that were within two possessions with two minutes to go in regulation.
In the same situations, Arizona is 4-5. It’s not a huge margin, but Northwestern might be a little better and a little more seasoned. And that could make all the difference.
When there’s two minutes to go, and 14,000 fans are screaming for the home team, can the Wildcats execute at the highest level to get it done? A WNIT Championship depends on it.