By Eric Rynston-Lobel
Joe McKeown knows that beating a team three times in a season is hard.
In fact, since McKeown came to Northwestern in 2008, the ‘Cats have never accomplished that feat.
The drought continued Friday night, when his team dropped its first game of the Big Ten Tournament to Michigan, 67-59. In the team’s previous two matchups this year, the ‘Cats won both by a combined 14 points. On Friday, the Wolverines finally broke through, catapulted by an 8-0 run to start the game.
The last time Northwestern had a chance to beat a team three times in a season was exactly a decade ago, against none other than Michigan. The ‘Cats won the first two regular season matchups by a combined total of eight points before losing in the Big Ten Tournament 67-54. Oh, and the Wolverines started that game on an 8-0 run too.
There’s no way to mask the disappointment of the loss on Friday. A week ago, this team celebrated its first Big Ten regular season title in 30 years. Six days later, McKeown’s team suffered its fourth loss of the season and failed to win a game in the Big Ten Tournament for the second straight year.
Again, it’s hard to beat a team three times in one season. Especially when the first two games are exceptionally close wins. Michigan Head Coach Kim Barnes Arico had confidence her team would finally break through in Indianapolis.
“Both times we played them pretty well, and the last time we had to play them without Naz [Hillmon], who had an injury, tried to come back in that game but wasn’t 100 percent,” she said. “We felt coming into the game that we would be able to give them a real good game.”
These previous matchups against the ‘Cats allowed Arico to figure out two key strategies: how to contain Lindsey Pulliam and how to get the ball out of Veronica Burton’s hands.
In the first matchup in January, Pulliam scored 32 points, one short of her career high. In the two subsequent games, Pulliam combined to shoot just 4 of 22.
“She’s obviously an exceptional player, can score in so many ways and has really improved her game from last season to this season, but we have a great defender in Akienreh Johnson, and we really challenged her when we played her at home,” Arico said. “Our kids take pride in their defense just as much as they do on the offensive end, and I think that was a focus of Akienreh, ‘I’m going to lock down the other team’s best player,’ and she really stepped up to that challenge.”
Meanwhile with Burton, Arico knew she had to find a way to stop Northwestern’s primary ballhandler. Despite still leading the ‘Cats with 15 points, Arico made sure to make her earn every inch of space on the court.
“I don’t know if you guys picked up on this, but Amy Dilk went 94 feet against Veronica Burton,” she said. “I thought once she took the ball out of her hands, that changed — they couldn’t get into their flow of what they wanted to do because she typically brings it out.”
Burton said she didn’t think it was too much of an impediment to the team’s offense but acknowledged that it made her job a little more challenging because it disrupted a lot of their play calls that start with her handling the ball.
Either way, Arico’s postgame comments make clear that she valued playing McKeown a third time and was effective in developing a game plan that finally led to a Michigan victory.
Maddie Nolan was the other key to Michigan’s win, and there was not much the ‘Cats could do to stop her.
Entering March, Nolan shot just 5 of 24 (21%) from three and 18 of 47 (38%) from the field overall. She was such a non-factor for the Wolverines that six weeks ago, she had not played more than 15 minutes in a single game.
Friday night was a different story. The freshman, playing in her home state of Indiana, had 13 points on 5 of 6 shooting including 3 of 4 from three in 34 minutes. An afterthought for the Wildcats in the first two matchups became one of their biggest headaches on the biggest stage.
Conventional wisdom says Northwestern did the right thing by focusing its efforts down low, where Michigan has so much size and athleticism, especially Hillmon, who led all scorers with 20 points. That, combined with the fact that Nolan didn’t play much in the first two games, perfectly explains why she had so many opportunities: Northwestern would let her beat them, and she did.
“I give Maddie Nolan a lot of credit. [She] hit big shots,” McKeown said.
Looking ahead, this loss hurts the ‘Cats a little in terms of NCAA Tournament seeding. Entering the game, they were projected as a No. 2 seed in Charlie Creme’s ESPN Bracketology. The loss dropped them to a 3. At the end of the day, the difference between a 2 and a 3 seed is negligible: Northwestern will still host its first two NCAA Tournament games, a monumental achievement for a team that simply hoped to make the tournament in the preseason.
Whoever that first opponent is will not have the same benefit Michigan had. They will not have played Northwestern this season at all, let alone three times. They will not have faced the “Blizzard” defense, and they will not have had the in-game experience Michigan had dealing with Pulliam and Abi Scheid offensively.
But despite Northwestern holding a top-16 ranking, it will be a new experience playing in the NCAA Tournament for a roster without a single rotation player that has reached the Big Dance.
“I’ve been to a lot of NCAA Tournaments, and nobody on this team has played in any,” McKeown said. “We’ll be ready. This team, given 10 days of rest, I wouldn’t want to play us.”