By Kevin Sweeney
Senior Day is always a culmination of four years of hard work. Four years of battling through adversity for one final moment under the bright lights tends to bring out some emotion. Sometimes tears are flowing, other times smiles rule the day.
Smiles certainly dominated the faces of Northwestern women’s basketball Saturday when the Wildcats dominated Illinois 75-58 to claim the program’s first Big Ten title in 30 years. A massive crowd of 4,016 was treated to the type of performance that has typified the 2019-20 Wildcats and was rewarded with a court storm when the buzzer sounded to begin the celebration.
The ‘Cats honored five seniors pregame: Abi Scheid, Abbie Wolf, Byrdy Galernik, Bryana Hopkins and Amber Jamison. Scheid opened the scoring with a wing three, but it was Wolf that took over the game with her play in the post. Wolf finished with 21 points, 9 rebounds and 3 blocks in perhaps her finest game as a Wildcat, and the center took over the game with three and-ones in a two-minute sequence in the third quarter when the Illini drew within six.
“The stage was set,” Wolf said. “Coach Pop said before the game ‘you had 18 and 10 last time… they can’t stop you.”
In many ways, the game felt like an official arrival of sorts for a Northwestern program that head coach Joe McKeown has worked tirelessly to build. The head coach joked multiple times throughout the season that when he first arrived in Evanston, he was happy when 50 people came to a game. Today, the team was treated like royalty: star guard Lindsey Pulliam posed for countless pictures with kids postgame, the usually-sparse student section overflowed into the upper deck, and a massive contingent of fans hung around to revel in the moment. Hoisting a Big Ten Championship trophy is a defining moment for a program that when McKeown took over more than a decade ago had won just 14 Big Ten games in the previous 9 seasons.
“I signed with a pretty good recruiter in Jim Phillips,” McKeown said. “He said to me I was going to have some heavy lifting when I got here, and he was right.”
While the heavy lifting may be completed, the journey is far from over.
“We’re just getting started,” McKeown said.
For now, Northwestern sits alone atop the Big Ten standings. However, Maryland can match the ‘Cats at 16-2 with a win Sunday at Minnesota, and the Terps would receive the #1 seed in next week’s Big Ten Tournament based on tiebreakers. Regardless, the ‘Cats earn a double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament and won’t have to play again until Friday. That provides time for a bit of celebration, including a TikTok: