Northwestern Nearly Won a National Championship in a Way I Never Expected

By Ari Levin

Northwestern is a national runner-up.

I’ve thought to myself at times how cool it would be for Northwestern to win a national championship in my time here. In any sport.

Olivia Rosendahl did that. And she’s amazing.

Two years ago, Northwestern women’s golf lost in the match play championships and finished as the national runner-up. And I’m ashamed to admit that I only found that out later and wasn’t following at the time.

I’m several years removed from the women’s lacrosse championships of the previous decade, pretty much the only time Northwestern has been elite on a national level – the only other team with a national championship was men’s fencing in 1941.

But this run was special.

Thanks to an incredible partnership between WNUR Sports and the Northwestern women’s basketball team, I watched way more women’s basketball games over the last two years than I ever thought I would. From my first broadcast with the team at Chicago State during the 2017-18 season to my final one at the Big Ten Tournament, it’s been a wild ride watching a team recently removed from the best senior class in school history (who, I’m also ashamed to admit, I didn’t watch nearly enough) as they constantly improved and showed more and more promise.

Once I started, I just couldn’t get enough. Soon I was watching every Big Ten women’s basketball game. and then as many national games as I could. I started the Big Ten Women’s Basketball Power Rankings my senior year as a way to stay involved while I was away from campus in the winter.

It really looked like Northwestern was faltering at the end of the season. After carving out a potential path to the tournament the Wildcats lost seven of their last 10 games, including a first-round exit of the Big Ten Tournament.

They reached a point where, with an RPI over 100, I wasn’t fully sure they’d even be picked for the WNIT. Thankfully, they were. And, suddenly, this team decided the season wouldn’t end just yet. You know the stories: down 18 to Toledo, never leading against West Virginia, a 20-9 fourth quarter against Ohio. And, wouldn’t you know it, Northwestern was in the WNIT finals.

And then their luck ran out. Playing in their fifth different state in 13 days, against a sold-out crowd over 14,500 strong, Northwestern never had a chance. Arizona won the tournament without ever having to leave campus.

So this Northwestern season ends with anonymity. Other than for die-hards like me, this team will quickly be forgotten to time, just like the 1995-96 team, which also lost to Arizona in the WNIT finals. Nobody remembers second place, and certainly nobody remembers second place among teams who don’t even make the “Big Dance”.

But this team has a ton of promise, as it showed throughout this incredible ride. Only one senior is leaving, and while Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah is one heck of a player, everyone else will be back and looking for revenge.

It’s a bittersweet ending for Northwestern women’s basketball. But Northwestern went to a national championship game, and that’s something I never thought I’d write during my four years here.

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