By Parker Johnson
Northwestern women’s basketball was off to its best start sine 2014-15 before Iowa gave the ‘Cats a 77-51 heat check on Sunday in Evanston. Joe McKeown’s team still holds a strong 12-2 record but faces a stiff road test against Minnesota on Thursday night. Here’s three things to keep an eye on — while you’re tuned into WNUR Sports 89.3 FM, of course.
1. Control your own Destiny
When you play against Minnesota, you have to keep Destiny Pitts in check first and foremost. It’s easier said than done, as Pitts plays with James Harden-esque efficiency. She averages 16.7 points per game while shooting 45.3 percent beyond the arc (2nd in the Big Ten) and 84.9 percent from the free throw line (1st).
The key for Northwestern will be to hurry Pitts off the three point line and make her a distributor. Pitts averages 3.6 assists to 3.3 turnovers per game, so she is much less dangerous when she is forced to handle and move the ball. Pitts has averaged more than 20 points per game in her three career matchups with Northwestern, but she has also never been matched up against Sydney Wood & Co. the way they are playing defensively this season.
2. Be smart from downtown
Minnesota can shoot the 3-ball at an elite level, with Pitts, Gadiva Hubbard and Sara Scalia all shooting at least 39 percent from beyond the arc to help the Gophers to a conference-leading 39.4 percent clip as a team. Northwestern needs to understand that three pointers are not its strength and stick to smart offense even if Minnesota starts heating up from deep.
If you look at Northwestern’s two losses, they tell very different stories in this regard. Against DePaul, one of the highest volume-shooting teams in the country, the Wildcats took just nine 3-pointers to the Blue Demons’ 23. The ‘Cats nearly pulled the upset before losing in a last-minute heartbreaker. In contrast, against Iowa, Northwestern fell into the trap of trying to keep up with the red-hot Hawkeyes. Iowa went 9-13 from deep while Northwestern chucked up a 4-21 shooting performance. It resulted in the ‘Cats’ lowest scoring output of the season and a blowout loss on Sunday. In the likely scenario that Minnesota heats up, Northwestern has to stay disciplined on offense, keep feeding the ball to Pulliam and the bigs, and trust that things will work out.
3. Steal the win
Northwestern and Minnesota both rank top-3 in the Big Ten in turnover margin, a stat that has been the cornerstone of NU’s efficiency this year. The top six players in the Gophers’ rotation all average over 1.0 steals per game and can pick Wildcat pockets at any moment. Of course, Northwestern’s defense is just as good, led by Veronica Burton, who leads the Big Ten and is sixth in the country with 3.7 steals per game.
The last time NU was matched up with a top-3 Big Ten team in turnover margin, the ‘Cats upended No. 12 Maryland on New Year’s Eve while winning the turnover battle 24-13. The ability to force turnovers — and more important, turn them into points — will play a big factor against Minnesota.
Tune in to WNUR 89.3 FM or Mixlr for coverage live from Williams Arena in Minneapolis at 6:45 CT!