By Eric Rynston-Lobel
When Northwestern Women’s Basketball Assistant Coach Kate Popovec returned to her alma mater before the 2017-2018 season, she could feel something special brewing.
It was a rebuilding year for a program that graduated four senior starters, including future WNBA player Nia Coffey. Northwestern had added a talented group of young players headlined by Lindsey Pulliam, but it struggled to an uninspiring 12-20 record. Nonetheless, Popovec could already tell the young Wildcats had a chemistry that you couldn’t teach and were creating the kind of culture that every coach dreams about.
“When we weren’t as successful on the court, every day in practice it felt like we were winning,” she said. “We knew they were just young, and they needed to go through those battles, and they did a great job staying positive, so I think the past three years the team has just been really, really special and fun to coach.”
Armed with their top four scorers from that 12-20 team, the Wildcats took a huge leap forward in 2018-2019. The results speak for themselves: nine more wins and an improbable run to the WNIT Championship Game. While Northwestern fell short in front of a ferocious Arizona Wildcats’ home crowd, it was clear that things were headed in the right direction for this season in Evanston.
Fast-forward nine months, and it’s still incredibly early in the 2019-2020 season. But with the ‘Cats sitting at 8-1 and leading the Big Ten with a top 10 national ranking in RPI, the program is certainly in position to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015. The statistics show a team that has made improvements on both ends of the floor, but with this group, the stats don’t tell the whole story.
In the final days of August, several Wildcats came together for a mini vacation. The team’s northeast contingent cooled off from the summer heat in Brooke Pikiell’s swimming pool at her family’s home in New Jersey.
“This is actually the first year we did something like that,” Pulliam said. “We just hung out for the weekend, went swimming in Brooke’s pool, watched TV. Just hung out with each other [and got] some time off from basketball.”
For senior Abbie Wolf, this wasn’t any ordinary dip in the pool. It was another memory made with lifelong friends. As she closes in on her final year wearing the purple and white, she said these moments of going swimming or just having fun like regular college students are sometimes as important and invaluable as triumphs on the court.
“The atmosphere, the way that we’re so close, tight-knit, it’s all genuine and natural,” junior Jordan Hamilton said. “Being a part of this team is a gift every day. It’s a sisterhood, and just being able to connect with one another each and every day just makes the experience here at Northwestern so much better.”
You’d be forgiven for thinking that a group of people that’s forced to spend so much time together would eventually get tired of each other, but that doesn’t happen with this team.
“Obviously we’re really close,” senior Byrdy Galernik said. “We practice three hours a day, but we’re probably together about seven to eight.”
That off-the-court rapport that was in action poolside at the Pikiells’ is unique to this group, and it’s not lost on the coaching staff. Popovec mentioned that in addition to setting the expectation of unity on the court, the trio of captains Pulliam, sophomore Veronica Burton and senior Abi Scheid help foster a strong feeling of community among the players outside the gym.
“When you see one of them, you see four of them, and it’s never the same groups. They’re always mixed up. They’re always together,” Popovec said. “They are always eating at different tables and goofing around and laughing. It’s fun because you know that on the court, that’s gonna translate.”
Most of the players don’t just eat meals and goof around together, though. They also live with one another and take classes together when they can. Wolf believes these kinds of bonds they create away from the basketball court further strengthen the team’s unity on the court.
Pulliam agrees. In her mind, this team is the most closely-knit group she’s ever been a part of.
“I love being around them, and I feel like it’s just a mutual feeling all the way through,” she said. “They’re great people. Everybody cares for each other. I don’t know. I just love them.”
The “I don’t know” in a sense epitomizes why this story is worth telling. When a team has this kind of dynamic, it’s hard to explain what’s so special about the group, even when you’re a major part of it.
For most teams, road trips present opportunities to prove how resilient they really are. But for this team, traveling around the country offers an unparalleled chance to connect with each other even further and make more memories together off the court.
“When you’re on the road, hotel trips, bus trips, all of that, you really get to see the personality of every single person,” Hamilton said. “Nobody on this team is necessarily quiet but being able to talk more in-depth with one another just makes it that much better.”
When the team finally returned home from a trip to Durham, North Carolina in mid-November, they completed nearly 2,000 miles of travel in a four-day span. After defeating Marquette 64-56 in overtime in Milwaukee, the ‘Cats trounced the Duke Blue Devils for the second year in a row, winning 63-42 in legendary Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“Getting those two wins, you could just see the grit we had as a team,” Hamilton said. “We knew that [Duke] wanted to come in and beat us, and just being able to get the same result that we did last year was really cool.”
According to Wolf, a successful road trip includes wins on the court but also fun off the court.
“I think people get off campus [and] everybody has a good time, playing card games and [having] casual conversations at meals,” Wolf said. “I told the first years, you’ve really arrived when you’ve taken that first chartered flight. It’s big time, that’s why you want to come play at a Power Five school.”
Whatever good vibes the players found away from home came back to Evanston with them.
In their first game back at Welsh-Ryan Arena, they dismantled Valparaiso rather easily, 69-48, with their depth and chemistry on the court on display. On a quiet night from Pulliam and Burton, Scheid stepped up with 21 points, including five three-pointers. Galernik was another major contributor, adding 10 points off the bench.
For Galernik, her experience and this performance prompted an increase in minutes over the last five games. She has responded with two more double-digit scoring efforts, including a career-high 16 points against a top-25 opponent in DePaul.
While her diligent preparation has kept her ready for these moments, Galernik has also been quick to credit her teammates and the team’s culture when asked about her own individual successes.
“I definitely can tell my confidence is up. My teammates keep giving me open positions to make plays,” she said. “Trusting each other and holding each other accountable is a big portion of why we’re so successful right now.”
During the pregame shootaround during that trip to Durham, the team was split in half to work on positional drills. At one end of the floor, the guards worked on perimeter passing and jump shots, while the forwards worked on setting screens and interior shooting at the other end.
As a 5-11 sophomore guard, Sydney Wood came into the Duke matchup averaging an astounding 9.5 rebounds per game. Early on in the shootaround, Pulliam saw a chance to lighten the mood by poking fun at her teammate, yelling the number 9.5 at Wood and telling her she should warm up with the bigs on the other side of the court.
This moment, which put smiles on the faces of the entire team, is just a snapshot of the dynamic Pulliam has brought to this program since she arrived in 2017. Not only is she averaging 18.1 points per game this year, her third consecutive season as the team’s leading scorer, but she also helps set the culture at the center of the team’s success.
“She’s a D.C. kid, and when she came to Northwestern I was like ‘she’s gonna make an impact on and off the court, in the locker room,’ and that’s what she does,” head coach Joe McKeown said. “She’s confident, but she also has a great sense of who she is and is very humble with her teammates.”
Balancing intensity and focus with a jovial personality is not unfamiliar to McKeown either. In fact, Popovec thinks that the team’s head coach shares much of the same positive energy as Pulliam.
“To be honest with you, it’s a side of Coach McKeown that people don’t get a chance to see all the time,” she said. “Coach is a really fun guy, but he knows when it’s time to be serious.”
McKeown said he loves coaching this team because even though they frustrate him at times, they bring a spirit and energy that are inspiring.
“He wants them to feel like they can be themselves all the time, and I think Lindsey embodies that,” Popovec said. “She feels like she can be herself, and the team is attracted to that, and it grows within them.”
Looking ahead to the rest of the season, there’s still much to be accomplished. Popovec believes the ceiling for this team is whatever they determine it is. This group doesn’t need the coaches to coach them on energy, leadership or effort because the players already expect those things from themselves, she said.
“That’s when you know you have a team that’s capable of doing whatever it is they believe they can do,” she said. “They really believe in themselves, so it’s a fun group to coach. They make life fun.”
Despite Popovec’s optimism, she wouldn’t explicitly say what the team hopes to achieve this season. The always-confident Pulliam didn’t shy away from offering her thoughts, though.
“I feel like we’re all on the same page this year,” she said. “We want to win the Big Ten and make it to the [NCAA] tournament. I think it’s just [having] that focus coming onto the court, and [then] we have fun when it’s time to have fun.”