By Margaret Fleming
The 2019-2020 season was a dream. Northwestern won 26 games and the Big Ten. Northwestern had the best 3-point shooter in the nation and the Big Ten Coach of the Year (for the first time in 30 years). And the Wildcats were going to The Big Dance.
We don’t have to talk about what happened. The fire alarm went off or the boss called to come in early or mom woke us up to help her fix the wifi. However your dreams get cut short, that’s what happened in 2020.
Instead, let’s look at the last time the ‘Cats went dancing.
The date was Friday, Mar. 20, 2015. The No. 7 Wildcats under Head Coach Joe McKeown took the court against No. 10 Arkansas in Waco, Texas. It was the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the first appearance for the ‘Cats since 1997. Their last game was 13 days earlier, an 11-point loss in the Big Ten tournament semifinals to the eventual champion Maryland.
The Wildcats had an impressive 23 wins, the most since 1996 when they finished second in the NIT. Sophomore guard Ashley Deary broke the program’s single season steal record in February. She finished the year with 95 after four against Arkansas.
It didn’t start as planned. The scoreboard early on flashed 9-2 in favor of Arkansas. The ‘Cats soon fired back, scoring nine unanswered points in under two minutes to grab the lead. But if there is one thing to note about this Arkansas team, it was their defense.
The Razorbacks forced 10 turnovers in the first half, focusing pressure on Northwestern’s two main scorers, Nia Coffey and Maggie Lyon. The two combined for just six points in the first half.
The game was tied 23-23 at the half, but coming out of the locker room, it looked like the ‘Cats would run away with it. They led by 13 after scoring on four straight possessions.
Unfortunately for Northwestern, things started to fall apart. Arkansas went on a 10-0 run and made it a one-possession game.
The Wildcats gave up nine turnovers in the second half, and their last bucket came with 3:59 to play. They had 55 points, and Arkansas made sure they got no more.
Northwestern was down one with 14.2 seconds remaining and no timeouts when Arkansas forward Melissa Wolff missed a free throw. Coffey grabbed the rebound and took it coast-to-coast because, well, she’s Nia Coffey.
Coffey came to NU from basketball powerhouse Hopkins High School in Minnesota. She was the first Wildcat to win first-team All-Big Ten honors all four years, and she left Evanston with over 2,000 pts and 1,000 rebounds. The San Antonio Stars picked her fifth overall in the 2017 WNBA draft, higher than any Northwestern basketball player in school history. If there’s anyone you want with the ball in her hands when you’re down by one with 14.2 seconds left, it’s Nia Coffey.
She took it down the floor, jump stopped and put up a left handed floater in the paint. Not a bad shot, but considering she had drawn three defenders, there were nine seconds to go and Deary was open in the corner, she might’ve found a better one.
The ball hit the front of the rim. Coffey grabbed her own rebound, and tried to create space among the tight Arkansas defense. She attempted to pass to Deary as she was knocked to the ground, which enraged McKeown and his bench, but instead it was stolen by Kelsey Brooks and taken the other way. Brooks was fouled with 2.9 to go, made a free throw and the game was over.
Northwestern’s season was over at 23-9, as were the college careers of the dynamic duo of Karly Roser and Alex Cohen. Arkansas’ next game was their last: an embarrassing 73-44 loss in the second round to host No. 2 Baylor.
Northwestern’s last dance lasted one night, but this year’s Wildcats likely would’ve advanced further. Though pairings were never released, their stellar season was expected to result in a strong ranking and several games of exceptional basketball.
There are plenty of reasons to think the 2020 team would have gone past the 2015 one. They were known for their few turnovers, which would’ve helped the earlier ‘Cats in their final game. They likely would’ve had a higher seed and played a more beatable team than 2015 Arkansas. Plus, they have a steal machine like Deary in Veronica Burton and a coast-to-coast kind of player like Coffey in Lindsey Pulliam. Luckily, those two will be back next year, and I don’t think they’ll be forgetting their dancing shoes.