By Eli Finkelstein
Nobody expected the ‘Cats to finish close to the top of the Big Ten—not even us at WNUR Sports. Before the season, members of the station placed Northwestern anywhere from fourth to seventh in the conference, right in the middle of the pack. Our expectations were blown out of the water.
The 26-4 Wildcats co-championed the Big Ten for the first time since the 1989-90 season, were a lock to host a regional in the NCAA Tournament and became TikTok famous. While the COVID-19 pandemic cut their season short, it doesn’t take away from the incredible moments the team brought the fans back in Evanston.
Guards Lindsey Pulliam and Veronica Burton created one of the fiercest backcourts in the Big Ten. Forward Abi Scheid shot the ball from deep as well as anyone in the country and earned First Team All-Big Ten honors alongside Pulliam. Sydney Wood and Abbie Wolf made significant strides from a season ago, while Jordan Hamilton, Courtney Shaw and Byrdy Galernik brought electric energy off the bench to fill out the Wildcat rotation. Head Coach Joe McKeown led the squad in his 12th season with Northwestern earning Big Ten Coach of the Year—not too shabby.
A Hot Start
The team got on a roll right out of the gate. A big overtime victory over Marquette and a dominant defeat of Duke set a winning tone for the rest of the season. The ‘Cats performed well in their non-conference schedule. They won eight of their first nine games, finishing a home stretch with a 74-47 drubbing of UT Arlington during a classic tradition in Welsh-Ryan Arena: Field Trip Day.
McKeown’s 700th Win
After Field Trip Day, the team headed down south to the West Palm Invitational in West Palm Beach, FL. McKeown entered the invitational with 699 career wins as a coach. Northwestern began the invitational facing East Carolina. After building a 20-5 lead in the first quarter, the ‘Cats never looked back. They closed out the game with a 64-45 victory and McKeown became the 13th active D1 coach to reach the 700-win mark.
Marquee Win Over Maryland
Despite a 10-1 non-conference record, the AP Poll did not have Northwestern close to their Top 25. In their first Big Ten matchup, the ‘Cats took care of Illinois with a commanding 77-50 win on the road. They then faced No. 12 Maryland—a team they had never beaten—back at home at Welsh-Ryan Arena. Behind a combined 47 points from Pulliam and Burton, Northwestern routed Maryland 81-58, knocking off the supposed best in the Big Ten. Northwestern gained their first ranked win, silencing the disbelievers among the AP Poll voters.
OT Win Over Indiana
The team headed to Bloomington 4-1 in the Big Ten with an opportunity to knock off another ranked opponent. With less than a minute remaining in regulation, the ‘Cats trailed the Hoosiers 62-59. A steal by Sydney Wood and an and-one bucket from Veronica Burton tied it up at 62, ultimately sending the game to overtime. While Indiana led during most of the extra period, Abi Scheid nailed a three with 1:03 left on the clock to bring the ‘Cats back within a point. Burton grabbed a steal on the Hoosiers’ ensuing possession and made two free throws to give the ‘Cats a 70-69 lead. After Indiana squandered two opportunities to score, Jordan Hamilton came up with a clutch steal to secure a 71-69 victory for Northwestern.
Regular Season Big Ten Co-Champions
After stampeding through nearly the entire Big Ten, Northwestern was 15-2 in conference play—just one win away from securing the regular season title. The only thing standing in their way was its in-state rival, Illinois. The ‘Cats rolled, beating the Illini 75-58.
The fans stormed the court at Welsh-Ryan. Though they may not have received the respect they deserved, Northwestern won the Big Ten regular season title.
After a surprising loss to Michigan in its first game of the Big Ten Tournament, Northwestern was positioned to grab a three seed in the NCAA Tournament. It would have been their first tournament appearance since 2015.
Even though the global pandemic took the NCAA Tournament away from us, the ‘Cats had the pieces to make a deep run. This program has a lot to be optimistic about for the future.