by Eric Rynston-Lobel
“It was magical. I looked at those girls, and to win at the level that we did, the ball has to bounce your way a little bit, but at the end of the day, you cultivate magic. It’s something you create. Our girls, our staff, our university, our program, they did that, and I can’t credit our team more. They just fought for everything that they earned. They created the magic…”
–Kate Popovec, Assistant coach
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This is an oral history of the 2019-20 Northwestern women’s basketball season, compiled from interviews with players, coaches, broadcasters and alumni. All non-italicized text is from direct quotations, lightly edited for clarity.
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On March 20, 1997, Northwestern women’s basketball played an NCAA Tournament game for the first time in four years. The program made the tournament three times earlier in the decade but never advanced past the second round. Now, the Wildcats had snuck back into the tournament with a record of 17-11. Their first round opponent was George Washington, a program transformed into a perennial powerhouse in the Atlantic 10 by a young head coach named Joe McKeown.
Northwestern lost 61-46, and the teams went their separate ways. The Wildcats were eliminated and never came close to finishing with a winning record over the next 11 seasons; the Colonials advanced to the Elite Eight and returned to the tournament nine times in the next 11 seasons under McKeown.
Northwestern hired McKeown to be the Head Coach in 2008, and the team finally returned to the Big Dance in 2015. Eighteen years to the day after their last NCAA Tournament appearance, the Wildcats faced Arkansas in the first round. They lost by two points, and a new drought began.
The Wildcats missed the tournament in 2016 and 2017 despite posting winning records. Several key departures and temporary relocation to Evanston Township High School saw the team finish the following season with a record of 12-20. The Wildcats returned to a newly-renovated Welsh-Ryan Arena for the 2018-19 season, but missed out on the NCAA Tournament once again.
However, the team’s improved record of 16-14 earned the team a spot in the WNIT. Northwestern won five games in the second-tier tournament thanks to a series of improbable comebacks before coming up short in the championship game against Arizona. The run gave the team new confidence and new hope for the 2019-20 season.
Meghan McKeown ’14, NU WBB alum, daughter of Joe McKeown: Prior to this season, there was a ton of momentum coming off the NIT run to the national title game. I think the resilience the team showed last March–– they were down in almost every single game, and I was working, so I would watch the games on my computer. We would be down like double digits, and I would turn it off because I was so frustrated. Then all of sudden I would check the final score, and we’d be in overtime, and I was like, “What happened?” There was just something about this team where in that NIT run last season, they developed this we’re-not-going-to-lose mindset. It carried over to this season.
Kate Popovec, Assistant Coach: More than anything, that experience not only improved our team chemistry––our team really gets along great and they love each other, and they work their butts off––but it just gave them the experience that they were lacking. You can’t give people experience. They’ve got to play and fight those battles, and I think that’s what happened in the WNIT. I think definitely coming into the year, I knew it had everything that we needed to be special.
Michael Wilbon ’80, ESPN Commentator: When they went to the NIT final game last year, I called Joe and I said, “This is gonna be the start of something really good.”
Joe McKeown, Head Coach: Coming off the March that we had the year before, and with almost everybody back, the expectations were really high to be one of the best teams in the Big Ten and to get to the NCAA Tournament.
Parker Johnson, WNUR Sports: I think like most people, you could see some potential, but you could also see how potentially as a team they could struggle. In our predictions, I put them as like .500 in the conference, similar to last year. I didn’t really envision a huge step forward.
Noah Coffman, WNUR Sports: The team is only losing one player, though it was a very important player in Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah. I projected them as winning a round in the NCAA Tournament, and in my media ballot picks, I picked Northwestern fourth in the Big Ten, which was a bit optimistic, but I knew not a lot of other media members were gonna be picking them in the top five. I wanted to make sure they got at least one because I knew the team deserved that much.
Meghan McKeown, former player: Did I think they could win the Big Ten? I thought they could finish in the top four for sure and get a double bye in the Big Ten Tournament.
Lindsey Pulliam, junior guard: Our goal was to win the Big Ten and make it to the (NCAA) Tournament.
Michael Wilbon, ESPN Commentator: I started following more closely when Lindsey Pulliam enrolled. Lindsey is the daughter of one of my wife’s best friends. I’ve known Lindsey since she was born. Her freshman year, she was as good as any freshman in the Big Ten, that’s for darn sure. I was into it. Then her sophomore year, I was hoping we’d get in the tournament, but getting to the NIT Final was a great step to what was next. From the first game (of the 2019-20 season), I thought that we were gonna be in the tournament, and we had a shot to be a really terrific team. It wasn’t one of those things that they got on my radar in January. They were on my radar from the very first practice.
Byrdy Galernik, senior guard: Before the season, we always set goals. We sit down, and everyone has individual goals they talk about with each coach and a team goal. Every year, we kinda say, “We’re gonna go undefeated. We’re gonna be Big Ten champs. We’re gonna make the NCAA (Tournament). We’re gonna make a run.” That’s always the goal, but I don’t know if I ever really envisioned it happening.
The Wildcats kicked off their season on November 6 with an 89-34 win over Lewis University in an exhibition. The team proceeded to comfortably win its season opener against Loyola-Maryland and headed to Milwaukee to face Marquette, the defending Big East regular season champions.
Ben Krieger, WNUR Sports: You could just tell that the group really got along well as soon you got on the bus. It was a very good atmosphere. Heading up the night before the game to Milwaukee, everybody was feeling pretty good.
Meghan McKeown, former player: We had gotten to Milwaukee early to eat dinner and go to the game. My dad called my mom and was like, “I didn’t bring my shoes. Can you pick me up a pair?” Mom and I ran into this shoe shop. Found a pair, (and) I was like, “These are pretty cool.” We got him those shoes and he had gotten a new suit as well earlier in the season, and he had gotten it tailored, so he was looking real fly. I guess all the girls were laughing at him with his new shoes and his new suit because they were like, “Okay coach.”
Eli Karp, WNUR Sports: That was the beginning of the season when we thought the team could be good, fight for a tournament spot. Weren’t really sure what it was going to look like. It wasn’t a great performance. Veronica Burton started the season not very well offensively. She had trouble shooting the ball (that day), but she just made little play after little play both on offense and defense and really flashed her basketball IQ.
Veronica Burton, sophomore guard: Down the stretch, I knew I had been struggling. But at the end of the day, I just had to keep doing whatever I needed to do to win the game.
Lindsey Pulliam, junior guard: Last year, we didn’t close out a lot of games that we knew we could’ve won. It really taught us that we needed to pay attention to detail and grind it out. We say it all the time––not every game is going to be pretty, but you have to find a way.
Kate Popovec, Assistant Coach: When we were in that game, I knew we weren’t gonna lose it. I was like, “We got Veronica Burton. We got Lindsey Pulliam. We got playmakers.” I felt really confident. I knew we had the grit and the experience to pull them out.
Veronica Burton, sophomore guard: We knew these were the games we needed to win in order for us to be as successful as we wanted to be. Just getting that opportunity at the end of the game and being successful in that moment was definitely exciting, but we did at the same time need to go in with an even stronger mindset in overtime. Lindsey kind of took over, and we all just did what we needed to do to finish that game off with a win.
Kate Popovec, Assistant Coach: I think anytime you win on the road against a talented team like Marquette, you take those wins however you get them, and then you just leave. You go, and it’s on to the next, and you learn from them.
Eli Karp, WNUR Sports: We got on the bus, they won in overtime, and I forget who it was. It was some assistant coach who, once Coach Joe got back on the bus, yelled to him from across the bus, “Coach, how many plays did Veronica make to win us that game?” She was starting to get some more recognition around the program. It was very clear the level of respect and trust they had in her. She’s just beginning her sophomore year at this point, but she comes in to lift the team with help from Lindsey Pulliam at the end of the game and in overtime for a win over a Marquette team that ended up being pretty darn good.
Meghan McKeown, former player: From that point on, he (McKeown) decided that he was gonna have to wear those shoes every single game. We’re very superstitious people in our house. There were a couple times he forgot them during the season, and he would text me, “Bring my shoes to the game please,” so it became quite the important article of clothing for him to have.
Joe McKeown, Head Coach: They got me the shoes, I wore them right before game time and we won in a great game in overtime. So, I kept wearing them. I wore them all year, so they were my lucky shoes.
The ‘Cats won 64-56 in overtime and improved to 2-0 on the season. After a bus trip back to Evanston, the Wildcats geared up for a flight to Durham, North Carolina. In three days, they would face their next test: a road game against Duke.
Kevin Sweeney, WNUR Sports: I remember entering the weekend saying we were going to learn a lot about this team. They were coming off that win against Marquette that was probably closer than I think a lot of us had hoped it would be. From my perspective, Northwestern had not exactly passed its first real test. They had just kind of survived it, and so Duke on the road was a significant test against a very good NCAA Tournament-caliber team in a tough place to play.
Joe McKeown, Head Coach: We had played them the year before. We had opened up Welsh-Ryan Arena with Duke, and we played really, really well. Beat them, had a 20-point lead. I felt like going to Cameron––which is really a cool place––that our confidence was high not just because of how we played earlier, but just because of the game the year before. I think they felt like they knew some of the Duke players’ tendencies.
Kevin Sweeney, WNUR Sports: It just felt like throughout the entire weekend, they approached it exactly the way you would want. They were loose. They left around 10 a.m., maybe even a little bit earlier for the airport. Everyone was grouped together saying hello, having a coffee, chatting around. A lot can be learned about a team based on how they act when they’re not on the court. There are a lot of teams that when they travel, the AirPods are in, and there’s just an ignorance to the outside world. I never really felt like that was the case with this group, especially well before games, on travel days, they would have a good time. There was a business-like approach when they needed to be business-like, but also a willingness to have fun that was really evident.
Joe McKeown, Head Coach: Our players felt good going in. Coaches are always paranoid the other way.
The Wildcats started off strong, leading Duke 19-11 after the first quarter. But the Blue Devils fought back to tie the game at 25 heading into halftime.
Abbie Wolf, senior center: I remember everyone was on edge a little bit. You lose a lead, you come into the locker room, everyone’s frustrated, but [you] try to be productive, give constructive criticism here and there, what we could change, what was going wrong in bliz (blizzard defense) second quarter. Blizzard really grows on people. Everyone makes some shots in the first half, but eventually it’ll take over. I guess to be cheesy, snow you in.
Joe McKeown, Head Coach: [The blizzard defense is] what we call a matchup where you play man-to-man on the ball and just really help and switch and deny ball-side. Some people want to call it a zone. The “z” word is a bad word in our vocabulary at Northwestern. We don’t use it in our coaching clinics. We don’t use it in practice either. It’s more of a way to disrupt the other team more than anything else.
Lindsey Pulliam, junior guard: The coaches talked to us and said, “They don’t want to play with you. Just come out. Do what we prepared. Come out aggressive,” and that’s what we did.
Abbie Wolf, senior center: I don’t remember exactly what was said but walking out of it and walking past a wall with all the greats who played at Duke and being on that stage, it was pretty surreal, like, “Okay, this is our moment. Let’s grab it.”
Veronica Burton, sophomore guard: We just knew what we had in us. We had [beaten] them last year. We had heard so many different things about it, “It was a fluke game,” all this stuff. We really talked about proving ourselves in that moment and knowing what we were capable of and how good we were. We knew Duke had a lot of good star players, but we talked a lot about how good our team chemistry is and playing together as a team in the second half. We knew it could be ours. We came out in the third. Knew we had to get a few stops in a row, and it kind of went from there.
Lindsey Pulliam, junior guard: We blew it open.
Kevin Sweeney, WNUR Sports: They just found a gear that I didn’t know that they had. They started strong. They took the next punch. The previous year they take that punch, and it’s a lot different. They take a punch, and now can they respond? Not only did they respond out of halftime, but they came out and just blew the doors off Duke in the second half, and that was a good Duke team. I remember Joe talking about it afterward and saying, “Yeah, that meant a lot.” It was just so impressive to see how they came together, and it all clicked. They were shooting the ball. They were confident on offense. They were getting stops. It was a complete performance in that game, unlike any we had really seen the previous season.
Michael Wilbon, ESPN Commentator: They had just blown Duke’s doors off again, and I remember texting Lindsey at that point just to say, “Oh my God! How did this happen?” Again, Lindsey’s like a niece to me, so she has to put up with me. But not often. I don’t do that often. Joe has to put up with me all the time.
Joe McKeown, Head Coach: Wilbon is a night owl, as are a lot of coaches like me. Sometimes we’ll go back and forth at one or two in the morning because I’ll be up watching film, and he’s up trying to figure out what’s going on on his show the next day. We’ve had great conversations at 2 a.m. He’s just great to have in your corner. He loves our team.
Michael Wilbon, ESPN Commentator: I knew they were pretty much fully formed. It was a complete team.
The Wildcats outscored Duke 29-4 in the third quarter and went on to win 63-42. They won their next two games against Valparaiso and Colgate, putting them at 5-0 entering their next contest, a home game against DePaul. The Blue Demons were also undefeated and ranked No. 16 in the AP poll. Northwestern was still unranked.
Byrdy Galernik, senior guard: DePaul’s always been one of our biggest rivals. Obviously, they’re maybe 30 minutes away from us, and I’ve never beaten them. It was a huge game, and I was really excited. A lot of my family came. It was a great atmosphere. We both battled back and forth.
Margaret Fleming, WNUR Sports: It was probably my favorite game that I’ve ever called at WNUR because up until the last 15 seconds, it was back and forth. It was so exciting. The crowd was so into it. I hadn’t experienced a Welsh-Ryan crowd being that excited for a game before since I’ve been at Northwestern.
Veronica Burton, sophomore guard: I really hadn’t started off the season as I expected. I was struggling. My mindset was, “What am I doing wrong?” My shot wasn’t falling.
Veronica Burton, sophomore guard: For me, that was probably one of the toughest moments in the season.
Meghan McKeown, former player: It was almost like that was the game that Veronica Burton grew up. It was incredible to watch how she responded after missing those free throws, and you could see she was never gonna let that happen again.
Veronica Burton, sophomore guard: I had so many of my teammates reach out to me and pick me up. Just seeing that, especially in my position being a captain–– normally, you’d expect the captains are obviously going to lift people up, keep the morale high, stuff like that, but I had literally everyone on the team coming up to me and encouraging me and supporting me in that way.
The Wildcats lost, 70-68.
Kate Popovec, Assistant Coach: That was a heartbreaker. There’s losses that stick with you. That’s always gonna be one that sticks with our players and our staff because we felt like we really should’ve won that game. We executed our game plan really well, and we just came up short, and sometimes that’s the game.
Margaret Fleming, WNUR Sports: It was kind of frustrating to watch because they were still working out some kinks [in] the blizzard defense, so a lot of times it would go to the corner, that’s where DePaul got a ton of their threes from, and they shot very well from behind the arc that day.
Parker Johnson, WNUR Sports: I remember after the game, Coach Joe said this is a game that felt like March, so even though we lost, it was good to get that experience. I’m always a bit more of a cynical person, so to me, it was like, “Okay well they couldn’t come away with a win in a close game against a really good team.” To me, that was more of a bad sign than a good sign just because I think they were up three within the last couple minutes and just lost it.
Joe McKeown, Head Coach: In college basketball, especially when you’re in a conference like the Big Ten, your non-conference schedule is gonna be tough. We made a couple mistakes. I made some mistakes as a coach in that game and all the games, but what can we learn from this? It’s too early to really worry about one thing or another. It’s more like, “Okay, what could we’ve done to give us a chance to win this game?”
Kate Popovec, Assistant Coach: I think one thing that Coach (McKeown) does very, very well is that he never gets too high or too low off a big win or a bad loss. He’s very focused on, “Let’s learn from it, and let’s move forward.” If anything, the loss the girls felt then kind of pushed them forward like, “We’re not losing this way again. We’re not going to leave a game and say we should have won it. We’re gonna leave games knowing that we did everything we could to win, and we did win, and we’re gonna finish.”
Veronica Burton, sophomore guard: That loss I really do think gave us so much motivation and brought us even closer. As much as it stunk in the moment, I think it really made us better in the end.
The loss dropped the Wildcats to 5-1 on the young season. They rebounded with a 66-63 win against Boston College and two easy victories over Dartmouth and UT-Arlington. Now 8-1, the Wildcats headed to West Palm Beach, Florida, where they would face East Carolina and Xavier as part of the West Palm Invitational. Northwestern won both games, and Joe McKeown picked up his 700th career win.
Joe McKeown, Head Coach: When you reflect about it after the season, you just appreciate all the great players I’ve had an opportunity to coach. Great, great coaches that have been with me. Places that I coached that supported me and my family. That’s really what I reflected on when I sat down afterwards.
Michael Wilbon, ESPN Commentator: I’ve known Joe since he was coach at George Washington. That’s how we got to know each other. I was covering local sports for the Washington Post. He was a tremendous coach long before he got to Northwestern. My golf buddy in Washington and in Chicago/Evanston. I just think Joe’s a terrific coach who didn’t get nearly as much praise during the season as he deserved because he’s not that kinda guy. He’s not always asking you to praise him. As a matter of fact, he deflects it. I just think he was the perfect coach for this team, to bring this team along the way he did.
Joe McKeown, Head Coach: As you’re going through it, you’re really busy. You’re playing game, game, game. It was right after finals, we’re coming up on Christmas break, so there was a lot going on. You’re trying to get them focused on the game in the tournament that we were in. That was it.
Noah Coffman, WNUR Sports: It would’ve been easy in an invitational setting like that to get pressed and want to hammer things home a little bit more than usual, [but they] stayed so calm and so under control in those two games.
Glenn Geffner ’90, WNUR Sports alum, Miami Marlins Broadcaster: They won two easy games in West Palm Beach. The competition wasn’t great, but in spite of that, you could tell there was something different and unique about this team. What really struck me seeing them in person was how much fun they had, not just playing the game, but how much fun they were having playing the game together. There are a lot of good teams that you can watch, and they’re almost robotic the way they go out and take care of business and win games and move on to the next one, but you could just see the joy that this team had for the game and playing it together. For me, that starts with the coach and the coaching staff and the kind of players that they bring in.
Northwestern wrapped up its non-conference slate 10-1 after beating East Carolina and Xavier by a combined 39 points. The Wildcats then opened Big Ten play with a 77-50 win at Illinois. Next up was a home game on New Year’s Eve against No. 12 Maryland, a perennial national contender.
Kate Popovec, Assistant Coach: Sometimes before games, you just have an energy to you. Our girls were really, really ready to beat Maryland, and I think it was because they just felt like we hadn’t been respected all year. We had one loss against DePaul who’s consistently a top-25 ranked program, and we still weren’t getting the attention or the recognition that they felt they deserved. Last year, they went to Maryland and felt like they just really underperformed, and that’s something they carried with them. When you play a Maryland, you know it’s an opportunity to showcase who you are and what you’re capable of. Our message was, “You have an opportunity to beat one of the best teams in the country on your home court. Go do it. If you guys really want to prove yourselves, this is the way to do it.”
Noah Coffman, WNUR Sports: At that point, Northwestern has not only never beaten Maryland but had only kept the game to single digits [twice] in the eight games they played against them in program history.
Joe McKeown, Head Coach: I was like, “We gotta beat these guys.”
Lindsey Pulliam, junior guard: For me and definitely Syd (Sydney Wood) and Courtney (Shaw), we’re all from Maryland, so that’s always a game that we circle on the calendar. Everybody always says, “Maryland’s the team to beat. Maryland’s the team to beat. They’re the best team in the Big Ten,” so we knew what was on the line going into that game. We had that confidence that we were gonna win the Big Ten this year, and we wanted to make a statement to not only the Big Ten but to everybody saying, “Look, we’re here this year.”
Abbie Wolf, senior center: We tried to treat it like any other game because you want the consistency and have a faceless opponent. Going back to sophomore year, Coach Tiffany Coppage said, “I’m not even going to do this scouting report. If you guys all will look me in the eye and tell me you believe we will win, I believe we will win.” I always carried that into any game when you may be an underdog.
Veronica Burton, sophomore guard: Northwestern Athletics is usually considered the underdog. We’ve been the underdog forever. We all had that mindset, knowing that no one on Maryland really respects us.
Abbie Wolf, senior center: You can’t have any doubt in your mind or else your opponent will take it out of you. It’s really playing up tempo, and I think we saw them joke around a little bit during warmups, and that always gets to you.
Veronica Burton, sophomore guard: We had everything to prove, so we just went in there with all the confidence in the world knowing what we were capable of and trusting each other.
Lindsey Pulliam, junior guard: Once we got a little lead in the first quarter, I feel like that kinda helped us even more in our confidence, showing that we can beat them.
Veronica Burton, sophomore guard: As soon as we saw even the first quarter, the second quarter, we knew it was our game from the jump. The way we were playing together. The way we were poised.
Noah Coffman, WNUR Sports: And then they start to pull away in the third quarter. Maryland’s still got nothing going on. Burton and Wood are all over them defensively. Shots are falling from everywhere on the court. All of a sudden, you’re thinking this is Maryland that they’re doing this to, a team full of top-100 recruits.
Byrdy Galernik, senior guard: We beat ’em up pretty good.
Abi Scheid, senior forward: We wanted to prove that we are able to play with the big dogs and able to succeed at that level. In that game, we really did. We blew them out by like 20 or 25.
Noah Coffman, WNUR Sports: I could just feel myself thinking about the team differently, recalibrating my expectations, something I continued to do over the course of the season from, “This is a team that can make the NCAA Tournament” to, “This is a team that can contend not only in the Big Ten, but on a national stage.” If you can do this to Maryland, you’re a national contender. I will never forget that moment of transformation because it’s not something I’ve ever felt before about a Northwestern basketball team. Really incredible.
Parker Johnson, WNUR Sports: That was definitely the one that turned my opinion on the team. That was when I was like, “Wow. Okay this team is good.” It’s one thing to kind of edge out a lucky win against those teams, but they smacked Maryland. Maryland was out of it at halftime. That just doesn’t happen.
Ben Moskow, WNUR Sports: I wasn’t really following the game personally. I was preparing for some festivities, but I saw the final score, and I was like, “Oh my God. Are you serious? They won by that much? That’s so crazy. This team is for real.”
Michael Wilbon, ESPN Commentator: I was out somewhere. I had to follow that on Gamecast. I was losing my mind. There’s several victories you can point to that make a team feel better about itself and give it more confidence. The Maryland game had to be that game. It had to. Had to.
For the first time in nine tries, the Northwestern Wildcats defeated the Maryland Terrapins. After winning 81-58 in front of just over 1,000 fans in Evanston, the team swarmed Assistant Coach Kate Popovec as she entered the locker room.
Kate Popovec, Assistant Coach: I was circulating the internet screaming, “Hell yeah!” I’m a really emotional coach, and for our girls, it meant a lot to them especially because we have a lot of girls from that area of the country, a lot of kids from the DMV. The energy in the locker room was like, “Yo. We just did that.” Now I think our kids really realized how good they were and how good they could be. That was the energy. You celebrate those wins, and you enjoy them. That was a special win for our program.
Abi Scheid, senior forward: It was crazy. For so long, we always thought Maryland was untouchable. That’s what showed us that we are good, and we have a chance to make a run this season and in the postseason. That’s what we were celebrating as a whole. Obviously, the Maryland win was huge, but I think we were more excited about our future and our potential.
Veronica Burton, sophomore guard: It was awesome. In that moment we recognized all the hard work that has gone into the season. From there, we knew that was a huge win, [but] we had so much more ahead of us.
Abbie Wolf, senior center: The country was put on notice after that game. We knew what we were capable of.
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Northwestern entered 2020 on a hot streak, having won seven in a row. At 12-1, the Wildcats were off to their best start since 2014-15, the last time they reached the NCAA Tournament. Their first opponent of the new decade was Iowa. The Hawkeyes came into Welsh-Ryan Arena at 10-3 on the season.
Kate Popovec, Assistant Coach: It’s so hard when you come off those big wins to refocus your energy on the next opponent. But it’s a really necessary thing to do to be successful throughout the course of the year, and that’s what winners do. Winners win, and they focus on the next opponent.
Kevin Sweeney, WNUR Sports: I felt like for the first time, there was real buzz about the team. You could try to sell your friends on how good this team could be.
Kate Popovec, Assistant Coach: Iowa’s a really good team. They’re always a good team, and their style of play lends to having very explosive offensive efforts. They’ve always been that way.
Margaret Fleming, WNUR Sports: (Amanda) Ollinger outplayed us in the post all day, and (Monika) Czinano. The two of them were so dominant. And then they have Makenzie Meyer and Kathleen Doyle, those seniors who are just so good. As it kept going, (Northwestern’s) down five and you think, “Okay. It’s just down five, and it’s back and forth.” Then down 10, you think it’s gonna be a comeback. And then slowly you realize that it’s not gonna happen, which was so weird because at that point, Northwestern’s only loss was DePaul. We hadn’t really seen them struggle with a big deficit yet. Everything had been really easy or a close game down to the wire, so it was not a team that I was used to seeing at all.
Kevin Sweeney, WNUR Sports: They got humbled in every sense of the word. It was so demoralizing because the recipe that had worked all season long was just not there.
Margaret Fleming, WNUR Sports: There were so many Iowa fans. It was disheartening, really. Behind the visitor’s bench was all yellow, and they were louder than Northwestern people for sure which made it kind of worse. At that point it was kind of just waiting for the game to be over.
Kate Popovec, Assistant Coach: Sometimes you need a little slice of humble pie.
Kevin Sweeney, WNUR Sports: I remember Joe coming over to the table postgame, and he was mad. But he wasn’t mad like, “We just got exposed.” He was mad like, “We’re better than that. We know we’re better than that. We know we can beat this team. We know we can win the Big Ten. We can beat anyone in this league.” I asked him how good this Iowa team is, and he said they’re good but that doesn’t excuse what happened. Looking back on probably the most embarrassing performance of the season, the main takeaway was that they couldn’t afford another one of these letdowns.
Veronica Burton, sophomore guard: The Iowa loss definitely was a big one in terms of a learning standpoint for us. This came right after a big high moment for us against Maryland, but it definitely was a bit of a reality check. It kept us humble in that moment, but it also kept us so much hungrier. We had to go back to our roots. That was a crucial loss for us, but a crucial game as well.
The Wildcats lost 77-51 to Iowa, and three days later they faced Minnesota on the road. The Golden Gophers had beaten Northwestern twice last season, and were picked to finish top five in the Big Ten by the media entering this season.
Kevin Sweeney, WNUR Sports: With Minnesota, [the Wildcats] had a bunch of road games coming up. They had at Minnesota, at Indiana, at Michigan State, and they were going to need to win some of these road games if they were going to be a legitimate contender to win the league. Minnesota was still kind of seen as a high-caliber Big Ten team at the time. They still had Destiny Pitts. They still had Taiye Bello. They were seen as a legitimate opponent.
Parker Johnson, WNUR Sports: The thing I remember about that game is the Abi Scheid army that came out to watch her. When we got to the hotel, the Scheids were waiting for us in the lobby and gave us a nice welcome to Minnesota.
Kevin Sweeney, WNUR Sports: The Scheid family being there kind of helped calm the nerves. They got to see them all on Wednesday night when they got to the hotel. They also had a smoothie bar that night at the hotel, which was a lot of fun, another way that everybody just stayed loose. It was a trip that they knew there was some kind of reckoning coming where we were going to find out if this team was legit very quickly, and we were going to find out how they play on the road when they don’t play their best basketball.
Noah Coffman, WNUR Sports: Northwestern looked like the much better team the whole way against a talented Minnesota squad, but Minnesota was just sort of hanging around by the skin of their teeth on ridiculous plays. All of a sudden you go from “gonna get a solid road win” to “Minnesota keeps hanging around. They might come back and steal this one.” [Northwestern] was playing complacently down the stretch and had to turn it on to win.
Northwestern led by 10 with just seven minutes to go, but the Golden Gophers chipped away. Minnesota had cut the lead to three with less than a minute remaining, and Jasmine Brunson tied the game with four seconds left. Timeout Northwestern.
Joe McKeown, Head Coach: Tangela Smith, my assistant who does a lot of our special out-of-bounds situations, her and I had put our package together. What had made it unique was we had just run the same play four or five possessions ago and we turned the ball over. I think Minnesota scored. In a way, that was fresh in our minds, so we basically baited them to do what they did last time, and we were able to get a backdoor cut ‘cause they overplayed. Abbie Wolf made a big play, flashing and then hitting Burton.
Lindsey Pulliam, junior guard: The ball went into Veronica. She made a great play to drive, and I kept coming in because I saw my defender losing focus on me, and Veronica dumped it off to me, made a great pass and the rest is history.
Joe McKeown, Head Coach: Pulliam made a great finish to win the game. There were a lot of people that touched the ball in five seconds. It was like a triple play in baseball or something.
Kevin Sweeney, WNUR Sports: The Minnesota game, we found that they could find a way to win when they’re not playing their best.
Noah Coffman, WNUR Sports: That had all the makings of a classic extremely frustrating loss. Northwestern for all 40 minutes looked the better team. The fact the game was tied at all was bad looking back at that game. It shouldn’t have gotten to that point. But that was the game that a lot of teams would’ve folded after letting it get to that point. They came back to run the perfect play. That Minnesota game was a game where I was like, “I’m looking at a very good team that is underachieving in this moment but is still getting the win.” That was a different feeling for me.
Parker Johnson, WNUR Sports: [Scheid] was swamped after the game. We were trying to get interviews done with her after the game because she had a career high in points, and we had to talk to her really quick. She was like, “I’m sorry, I got people to go see.”
Kevin Sweeney, WNUR Sports: Abi Scheid was treated like she was the Queen of England. She was unbelievable, the amount of people who had come out to support her, and I feel like that group really wrapped their arms around the entire team. It just made them feel a little bit more at home when you’re on the road. There were plenty of baked goods to go around, and I think Abi had a tray that she was bringing back to Evanston with her. Everyone was eating and having a good time and celebrating. They definitely had fun with that one.
The Wildcats followed up their 56-54 win at Minnesota with a 61-56 victory over Purdue. They were now 14-2 overall and 4-1 in the Big Ten, tied atop the conference standings with Iowa, Rutgers, and their next opponent, Indiana. The 14-3 Hoosiers were poised to be Northwestern’s toughest road test yet.
Ben Moskow, WNUR Sports: That was the trip where they made the TikTok.
Byrdy Galernik, senior guard: Honestly, I’m a big TikTok fan. I go on it a lot. Sometimes too much. Finished my homework early, had some time left before curfew, and the Harry Potter ticking time bomb thing was stuck in my head.
Meghan McKeown, former player: I was on that road trip with them at IU because I worked in Indianapolis, so I had a couple friends I was gonna meet up with. What was so interesting about this team was that they all liked each other. I played basketball my whole life. I played at Northwestern, and there’s always divisions on teams no matter what. You always have your really good friends and your teammates, but there’s always little cliques that form. With this team, you couldn’t tell if there were cliques or not.
Byrdy Galernik, senior guard: After the bus ride in Indiana, we were just eating, and [the] people at my table were all finished, and I was like, “Hey, you guys wanna make a TikTok?” I just brought it out there, and they’re like, “Sure.” I was like, “Does anybody care who they want to be?” It was pretty nonchalant. People who were in it were very go-with-the-flow, so they didn’t really care, but it was fun.
Meghan McKeown, former player: I think you look at that TikTok and you have Abi Scheid and Sydney Wood who start and then you have somebody like Brooke Pikiell who doesn’t necessarily get a ton of playing time. But they all looked at each other as equally important.
Byrdy Galernik, senior guard: The goal is always to go viral, and I honestly thought I was gonna go viral when I posted it. I was so upset for like a week. I was like, “This was really good,” and this is not making it. Then like a week and a half later I come back from practice, I look at my phone, and my phone’s blowing up. Friends, coaches, everybody’s like, “Dude your TikTok’s going viral.” It took like a week and a half for it to catch some fire, but it was pretty cool. I like to hold my social media presence to a good standard.
Ben Moskow, WNUR Sports: It’s wild to see how tight-knit everybody is. It’s something that you can kind of pick up on by seeing them on the court, but when you’re on the road with them, everyone’s looking out for each other, they’re making sure that they’re in the right place at the right time. You see the incredible energy and focus in practice, and they’re able to balance fun very well with working hard. I think a lot of them have this chip-on-their-shoulder mentality. That’s what they had the whole season, and that’s what the coaching staff was pushing. That was something that definitely shone through, that underdog mentality.
Indiana entered the game ranked 15th. The Wildcats, who were still unranked, had not beaten a top-15 team on the road since 1994.
Kate Popovec, Assistant Coach: I think Indiana is a really fun place to play. It’s a tough environment, but it’s a fun environment.
Ben Moskow, WNUR Sports: It was the first time I did play-by-play on the road. I had had a couple games in the fall, so this was really one of the first times I had to contend with a raucous crowd. That’s just not something we were getting in the non-conference season. It was incredible. Northwestern went out to this huge run at first, and we’re like, “Oh my God. Is this team for real?” This was right on the heels of [crushing] Maryland, and then there was that one Iowa loss, but we were like, “Are they just gonna blow Indiana out of the water?” Then you see things start to regress to the mean. Indiana’s riding their home crowd. Jaelynn Penn is hitting shots. Grace Berger had a couple buckets. Ali Patberg was doing great. Mackenzie Holmes was absolutely killing on the interior. We were thinking there’s no way that they’re stopping her. Abbie Wolf was in a lot of foul trouble, and Holmes was just putting post moves all over the place on anybody who was trying to guard her. They couldn’t guard her without fouling, it seemed.
Veronica Burton, sophomore guard: We had to stay upbeat especially with some of the runs that they were able to go on. Being down 10 going into the fourth quarter at Indiana is not easy at all.
Kate Popovec, Assistant Coach: When you’re in the huddle, especially as a coach, one of the things you can sense is the energy of your team, and you can be saying things that they don’t believe. You can sense their energy is defeated, or they’re frustrated. Our team was so locked in. I looked at them, I’m like, “We’re down 10 points. We’re about to win this game.” As a staff, I think [we] said, “We really don’t have any idea how, but we’re gonna win this game.” The message to our team, something they’ve always bought into, is controlling the controllables, and that was on the defensive end.
Abi Scheid, senior forward: We all just knew what had to be done. We had to get stops on defense.
Ben Moskow, WNUR Sports: A double-digit deficit, and there’s [7:13] remaining in the fourth quarter, and they just clamped down on the defense. That was one of the spots where I was like, “This team has the best defense in the Big Ten.” You have these guards that can come up with a steal at will, and you’re bringing Jordan Hamilton off the bench who can do the same thing. That was unbelievable. They made every single defensive play, and then they ran the break, and they got the bucket they needed. Just worked together and found a way. I saw some tape of the huddle where Kate Popovec was yelling and being like, “Don’t give up any more points! You gotta hold them right where they are.”
Lindsey Pulliam, junior guard: There was one timeout where Pop came in the huddle and she was like, “Look. This is what we need to string together: string together some stops and go stop, score, stop, score.” We all locked in like, “If we lock down on defense, we know we can make something happen on offense,” and I think that’s really when we locked in. The coaches were like, “We can win this game.” I remember saying, “We’re winning this game.” We all just got together and said we gotta do whatever it takes.
Kate Popovec, Assistant Coach: All of us were like, “We have to get stops, and that will lead to opportunities to score. We will score, but in order to do that, you have to have control of the ball.” That was something they locked into. In those last four minutes, I think we gave up three points. We took control of the game.
Veronica Burton, sophomore guard: This is what we prepare for. In so many of the shootarounds we go over last-possession games, last-possession moments. I was put in a great position to make that layup by our defense of Sydney and Lindsey, and their stop and steal that led to it.
Kate Popovec, Assistant Coach: There was no doubt that once we got it to OT that we were gonna finish that game. Again, I think being battle-tested in the WNIT and having to finish in such dramatic fashion for the entire month of March and April last year really prepared our kids.
Veronica Burton, sophomore guard: There was really never a doubt in my mind that we were going to [win] that game.
After making the game-tying free throw in regulation, Veronica Burton returned to the line in overtime with 32 seconds left and Northwestern trailing by one. She made both free throws to give the team the lead for good. The ‘Cats won 71-69.
Meghan McKeown, former player: My all-time favorite game this season was on the road at Indiana when we came back from down double digits in the fourth quarter, Veronica hits that layup and she sinks those free throws. From that DePaul game, I always thought about how she missed those free throws, [and] for her to come back when it really counts against a conference opponent on the road was unbelievable.
Kate Popovec, Assistant Coach: Veronica Burton is probably the most humble, unassuming type of leader that you have. Her team just embraced her having that coming-out moment. Veronica had been playing really well, but that Indiana game, she took the team on her back. All it was was pure happiness for their teammate and for each other. That was really, really special. Easily, egos can get in the way of any type of success, [but] our team genuinely was so enthralled for each other.
Ben Moskow, WNUR Sports: People weren’t exactly going off the wall (on the trip back). They probably celebrated like crazy in that locker room, and then they were kinda just like, “We got this one. Now on to the next.”
Next was last-place Penn State at home on Sunday January 19, followed by a more challenging road trip to Michigan State on January 23.
Ben Krieger, WNUR Sports: The thing about any Penn State game is until last year, Joe had never beaten Penn State. Any Penn State game for Coach McKeown is not an easy one, even when it’s a blowout win. You gotta go out and you gotta beat that team. Gotta shut down some of their top players.
Meghan McKeown, former player: I forgot to bring [the lucky shoes] for the Penn State game. My mom looked at me and was like, “You need to go back and get them.” I was like, “We’re not gonna lose to Penn State. We have to try to be like normal people and not depend on these shoes so much.”
Ben Krieger, WNUR Sports: Penn State was about now you’re at home, you’re playing an inferior team, are you going to let them beat you or are you going to take care of business? That’s the difference between a team that loses two or three times in the Big Ten like Northwestern and a team that loses eight times like I thought the Wildcats might be.
Meghan McKeown, former player: He had a different pair of shoes that game, and we actually ended up winning by like 30, so it was fine. We figured that was our one mulligan and figured, “Okay, better keep bringing these shoes.”
Kevin Sweeney, WNUR Sports: There was a sense among the broadcasters that things were a little too good to be true and that there was another shoe that was inevitably about to drop. Michigan State coming the next road trip after Indiana, but before Maryland, combined with the fact that Michigan State was coming off one of their best wins of the year at Rutgers and had won 26 of their last 27 at home, it just had the feeling of trap game, trap game, trap game.
Kate Popovec, Assistant Coach: We played on a really awkward night. It was an easy game to be a trap game, to kind of go in there and just be like, “Alright. We gotta cruise through this game. We’re tired.”
Kevin Sweeney, WNUR Sports: Their first five minutes were about as disastrous as they come. The teams scored seven points in the first five minutes. This is going to be a 40-minute war. This is going to be an ugly game.
The Wildcats were ranked for the first time all season. No. 22 Northwestern trailed Michigan State 5-2 at the first media timeout.
Kevin Sweeney, WNUR Sports: From those five minutes on, Northwestern was just dominant. Michigan State couldn’t do anything offensively. They were turning it over like crazy. Veronica Burton was dominating. Lindsey Pulliam was playing great basketball.
Kate Popovec, Assistant Coach: The win at Michigan State is one that is very underappreciated but was a really big one because Michigan State was gaining steam. To go in and win in the fashion that our kids did just showed how serious they are and how focused their approach was with every opponent that we had.
Kevin Sweeney, WNUR Sports: We have the Cardiac ‘Cats label for football, but it really applies to everyone. There’s just not a lot of blowout wins. That game was a blowout win, and it felt different. It felt like this is a Maryland-caliber team. There’s a tendency in this league to constantly compare yourself to Maryland because they’d been such a force year in and year out. That was a Maryland-caliber execution of a win.
Ben Moskow, WNUR Sports: That stretch of two games was they’re going in, they’re expected to win, and they’re expected to win by a lot. That was my moment where I [felt] like this is a top-tier team in the conference, and they’re going into every game thinking this is gonna be a dub. That’s not a feeling I’ve really experienced with a Northwestern team before, that sheer domination.
Not long after returning to Evanston from a 76-48 win over the Spartans, the ‘Cats traveled to Maryland to take on the 20th-ranked Terrapins. Both teams lost to Iowa earlier in the month, but both teams had been perfect ever since, with Northwestern winning its next five games and Maryland winning its next four. The night before Sunday’s crucial matchup, the Pulliam family hosted the ‘Cats for dinner.
Ben Krieger, WNUR Sports: They had pizza. They had wings. They had salad, and they had homemade jambalaya, I want to say, as well as crab dip with chips and spread, but the main things were pizza, wings and jambalaya. I don’t remember if it was technically jambalaya or gumbo. I’m not sure if I know the difference. It was something with rice and sausage and shrimp and chicken, and it was delicious.
Lindsey Pulliam, junior guard: It was so much fun. Coming home is always a great time, and then being able to share my home and where I come from with my team and my coaches and our staff, it was awesome having them here and just being able to hang out with them at my house. It was just a great time.
Eli Karp, WNUR Sports: There were some forces working against them with timing. They were going to Lindsey Pulliam’s family’s house that night for a very nice dinner and obviously not the typical night-before-a-game activity. It was a great bonding trip. There were tales of the team playing Cards Against Humanity in Lindsey Pulliam’s basement. I wasn’t there for that, but by all accounts, the trip was about more than just the game. On the court, I thought they didn’t necessarily play their best game and yet, they were ahead at the half.
Lindsey Pulliam, junior guard: [We were] trying to prove last time we beat them wasn’t a fluke. We’re actually a great team. We have what it takes to win this conference.
Eli Karp, WNUR Sports: Reports that Kobe died started coming at the very end of the fourth quarter. There’s a text that pops up on my screen that says “Kobe…” I was doing a little digging and I’m like, “Oh my God. Kobe died.” This is still a very competitive game going on. [The Wildcats] were within five points in the last two minutes. I’m trying to process all this, and meanwhile I have Ben next to me doing play-by-play who’s a huge Lakers fan. He’s not aware that any of this is happening, and I don’t want to arouse any kind of fear or concern in him. Northwestern ends up losing by nine, and it was disappointing, but the trip ended in a way that had nothing to do with the game.
Ben Krieger, WNUR Sports: The game had ended, and pretty much right when it ended is when the news started to break. I was on my computer as part of the broadcast. I got the news right then. A lot of Northwestern parents were at that game because a lot of them have family in the Maryland area. All of the fans and everyone in the media was starting to get it. The players and coaches hadn’t yet gotten it. They were going back to the locker room to get changed.
Lindsey Pulliam, junior guard: After the game, we all came to the locker room. Coach pulled me, Scheid and Veronica aside, all three of the captains, to talk to us and basically say, “We’re fine. We’re gonna be alright. It’s a game, and we’re gonna learn from it and move forward.” Then, we got finished with that, and we went back into the locker room, and I don’t remember who told me, but somebody was like, “Kobe Bryant died.” My heart just dropped. He’s really meant the world to me. His whole mindset has really had a big influence on me, so that really hurt. It was a rough day for me, that’s for sure.
Ben Krieger, WNUR Sports: To see the players come out and talk to their parents, just disbelief. It was hard because people are saying goodbye to their families and parents and then getting on a bus and immediately going to get on a plane. Obviously, it’s not a helicopter. I can’t say what everyone was thinking, but I know that I was just very sad, and it was not about the game. They wanted to win the game. They didn’t get the win, but pretty much immediately I would think that was not a worry at that point. People were definitely more upset about Kobe and not only Kobe, but all other eight lives and three of them were young girl basketball players. That, I think, hit really hard, much more than the game itself.
Northwestern lost 70-61, but Kobe and Gianna Bryant’s deaths were at the forefront of everyone’s minds on the flight home. The tragedy continued to cast a shadow over the basketball world as the Wildcats prepared to close out the month of January at home against Michigan.
Christine Brennan ’80, USA Today Columnist: I was in for a women’s sports weekend at the end of January, and I came in a day early. It was a Thursday night, January 30, and I was at the Michigan game. It was a good crowd, and it was a great atmosphere.
Joe McKeown, Head Coach: Having been the one that spent a lot of time recruiting Lindsey in high school and then coaching her, this is her junior year, she modeled a lot of her game after Kobe and was really upset. We just tried to comfort her. I think it inspired her too.
Lindsey Pulliam, junior guard: [Kobe’s] mindset, having that Mamba Mentality, like, “I don’t care who you are. I’m gonna do whatever it takes to beat you,” and just having that mindset that I’m better. In terms of my actual game, one of the things is definitely when I post up my turnaround fade away, that’s definitely one thing I try to mimic from him.
Joe McKeown, Head Coach: She wrote on her shoes. She took it and turned it into, “I’m playing for my team, but this is what I’m thinking about.” It was incredible.
Lindsey Pulliam, junior guard: Kobe Bryant has shaped a lot of my mentality, my game and how I approach not only basketball, but how I approach life and other things, like in the classroom. I felt like writing his name and Gigi’s name on my shoes was the right thing to do and something I needed to do to pay tribute to everything he’s given me in terms of my game and my mentality.
Joe McKeown, Head Coach: She’s had a lot of great games, but that was one of her best ones as a Wildcat.
Lindsey Pulliam, junior guard: I didn’t realize it until after the game, Dr. Phillips spoke in front of the team, and he said “24 + 8 is 32,” and he looked at me, and that just showed me [Kobe] was with me in that game for sure.
Jake Liker, WNUR Sports: Being from L.A. and being a basketball fan from L.A., what happened to Kobe and Gigi and everyone on that helicopter was just shattering. There was just something comforting about watching Lindsey play in that context because she really does remind me of Kobe. You can see his influence in her game, in her attitude, in her confidence. It was nice to see that his legacy was going to be carried on in all facets of the game, and I think Lindsey had that Mamba Mentality in her. For someone who’s watched Kobe all his life, I think it was really evident in her more than anyone else I saw play in person in the several weeks or so that followed Kobe’s passing.
Christine Brennan, USA Today Columnist: Of course, Lindsey Pulliam is the team leader, and the ways she pulled us out of trouble over and over again was extraordinary, but even though you’d say she’s the star, she’s the leader, they’re all in this together, and she doesn’t act like anything more than just another incredible cog in this machine that was just firing on all cylinders. I’m not sure it wasn’t something that I didn’t already know, but [the Michigan game] may have confirmed it for me, just the camaraderie among the players. The friendships, the respect for one another and the way that this team was put together was magnificent. Everyone in it for each other. Everyone pulling together as one.
As the calendar flipped to February, the Wildcats prepared to play Penn State again, this time in Happy Valley where they hadn’t won since 1997.
Kevin Sweeney, WNUR Sports: It was relaxed. Maybe a little too relaxed. There’s an inevitable midseason lull that happens when you’re really good and you play a really bad team on the road. That’s why things like that can happen. There are always upsets, and they happen because teams overlook other teams. I don’t think they totally did that. They just didn’t come out completely sharp in the first half, and that allowed them to hang in.
Noah Coffman, WNUR Sports: You watched that first half, it was 38-37 [Penn State] at halftime, back and forth action. Penn State hit a lot of shots. Northwestern hit a lot of shots. Even though it was close at half, I never even considered Northwestern losing the game.
Joe McKeown, Head Coach: That halftime was really technical, it wasn’t really that emotional. It was more, “Look, we’re fine. They can’t play with you for four quarters.” I told our players, “Especially at home now at Penn State, they’re gonna stay with you.” They’ve stayed with everybody for a half, or three quarters, for the fourth quarter. They’d struggle a little bit late in the game. I didn’t think we were playing bad, I just thought they were playing well. We made a couple of adjustments.
Noah Coffman, WNUR Sports: And sure enough, they came out of halftime and they just exploded. That became such a staple of what this team could do. Even when teams are hanging around, they could turn it on in the second half. People talk about how you can’t just flip the switch. This team absolutely could do that. They did it four or five times over the Big Ten slate where they weren’t even playing badly in the first half, but just playing a close game, and then all of sudden kicked it into a gear that their opponent didn’t have. That was one of the things that was really special about this group.
No. 23 Northwestern won by 23 points, 82-59, its first victory at Penn State in 23 years.
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February 3 marked the first of seven days without a game for Northwestern. At that point, a clear top four had emerged in the Big Ten standings. By the end of the night, Iowa, Maryland and Northwestern were all 9-2, and Indiana wasn’t far behind at 8-3.
The Wildcats climbed up to 19th in the AP poll, but a busy schedule awaited them on the other side of the break. The team stared down a home stretch of seven games in 20 days, beginning with Michigan State on February 10 and culminating with Illinois on February 29.
Northwestern won its first game back with ease, taking down the Spartans in Welsh-Ryan Arena by a score of 85-55. Three days later, the Wildcats were in Ann Arbor to face the Michigan team they had defeated just two weeks ago.
Kevin Sweeney, WNUR Sports: There was the knowledge that Michigan was not going to be an easy game on the road. They had already pushed Northwestern at home. They had one of the best players in the league in Naz Hillmon.
Eli Karp, WNUR Sports: At some point in the first half, Veronica Burton and Pulliam were in foul trouble. Jordan Hamilton was playing heavy minutes at point guard, she then picked up a foul, [so] toward the end of the half, you have Lauryn Satterwhite and Courtney Shaw and Byrdy on the floor all at once which really did not happen at all this year, especially in conference play. We were saying you can’t really put Sydney Wood out there because she’s not really someone who can create her own shot, and that’s what they needed at the moment because Michigan’s defense was very effective.
Lindsey Pulliam, junior guard: Syd doesn’t get the credit that she deserves. She’s kind of like the glue to our team. She does all the little things that may not come up as much in the stats and everything or may not be talked about as much, but she does all the little things that we need to get done.
Eli Karp, WNUR Sports: We come back on, beginning of the second half, Parker (Johnson) and I are (still) talking on air about how Joe McKeown couldn’t really afford to put Sydney Wood out there when they needed more offense. Lo and behold, what does Sydney Wood do but have the half of her career.
Kevin Sweeney, WNUR Sports: Sydney Wood made several huge plays. She won them the game.
Lindsey Pulliam, junior guard: That game, I didn’t have a great game, and Syd stepped up. Veronica stepped up as usual, but Syd, she stepped it up on defense and she really stepped it up on the offensive end too and produced some scoring for us. It was an all-around great performance. She really came up big for us in that game.
Eli Karp, WNUR Sports: She took it upon herself and really showed no fear whatsoever. When Pulliam was off, when Burton was off, when Wolf was off which was largely the case that night outside of Burton who just didn’t have many chances, she just stepped up.
With her team trailing by five at halftime, Sydney Wood burst out of the gates in the third quarter to give the Wildcats the lead. She contributed 10 points, 3 steals, 1 rebound and 1 assist in the third quarter alone, and Northwestern went on to win 66-60. After securing its 21st win of the season, the team waited at Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti to return home.
Parker Johnson, WNUR Sports: The bus was waiting on the tarmac. There had been a bunch of snow, so we were just waiting to get clearance to get on the plane and stuff. The bus had been stalling for 30 minutes, and they didn’t really know what to do. Somebody started singing in the back, and the bus driver chimed in when he heard the singing. He was like, “Hey, we have a microphone up here if you’re trying to do karaoke.”
Veronica Burton, sophomore guard: Sydney Wood had this karaoke thing. She got it for Christmas, so we had been doing it a few times. We thought that this opportunity was the best time to do it.
Lindsey Pulliam, junior guard: I’m not sure how it started. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was Jordan Hamilton that started that one.
Eli Karp, WNUR Sports: Jordan Hamilton is one of the most colorful personalities you will come across at Northwestern, not just in athletics, I mean the entire university.
Veronica Burton, sophomore guard: I don’t know who started it. Probably Jordan or something.
Parker Johnson, WNUR Sports: There was an impromptu karaoke session. Jordan Hamilton was like, “Oh yeah! We should do it! We should do it!” and she was trying to get somebody else to sing. Then they just goaded her into it as the person who was pulling so hard for the karaoke to start. Jordan Hamilton sang and then Veronica Burton did a song, and I think Kaylah Rainey was the one who finished it off. I don’t remember the songs specifically. I just remember sitting there with Eli, and I was like, “Please don’t put the mic in our face. For the love of everything don’t let this happen,” but they were having a blast.
Veronica Burton, sophomore guard: We have a lot of big personalities on this team, and we’re just so close. We’re far more comfortable than most people would be on a college team.
Eli Karp, WNUR Sports: It was that relaxed, trust-in-themselves confidence that they knew what they were doing off the court wasn’t going to affect what they did on the court in that way. They knew that they had each other’s backs. This wasn’t just a team on a mission. This was a team that was also stopping and smelling the roses as it made history.
That night, Maryland beat Iowa by 34, leaving the Terrapins and Wildcats alone at the top of the conference standings at 12-2 and 11-2, respectively. Further down the standings was a 6-8 Nebraska team that would face the ‘Cats in Evanston three days later.
Michael Wilbon, ESPN Commentator: That Nebraska game on NBA All-Star Sunday, that was a game where you’re playing for your seeding. You hope you get one of those top seeds, so you have at least a home game, perhaps two home games in those first two rounds (of the NCAA Tournament). When you’re playing for that, you know you’re a team with a chance to challenge for a national championship.
Kate Popovec, Assistant Coach: At the end of the day, there are certain aspects of basketball that you can control and that you can’t control. In that Nebraska game, we just had kids miss shots that they normally make.
Abbie Wolf, senior center: I played horribly. That was probably the worst basketball game I’ve played in my career. I took a lot of shots, and I missed so many, like 2 for 12.
Lindsey Pulliam, junior guard: For me personally, that was probably one of my worst shooting games.
Kate Popovec, Assistant Coach: [We] had opportunities. They weren’t going in. Nebraska played very well. They executed exactly the way that we anticipated they would.
With three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Northwestern trailed by five. The Cornhuskers were shooting 47% from the field; the Wildcats were shooting 25%. Lindsey Pulliam was 0 for 12.
Abi Scheid, senior forward: Us (Pulliam, Wolf and Scheid) going 7 for 36, that showed something about this team. Other people can always step up.
Kate Popovec, Assistant Coach: When you look at the games we won, it was always someone different stepping up to make plays. That’s just the type of team we had. No matter what, we always knew the answer was somewhere.
Abi Scheid, senior forward: Jordan (Hamilton) played so well that game. She stepped up a lot.
Kate Popovec, Assistant Coach: In that game, you had Jordan Hamilton step up off the bench and show exactly who she is…coming in and chipping in 10 huge points and making two huge defensive plays down the stretch.
Abbie Wolf, senior center: We always pick each other up and gritted it out, especially with our defense. Even when it wasn’t going so well, that was when we really came together and most teams split apart.
Lindsey Pulliam, junior guard: Every time I missed, everybody just kept telling me [to] keep shooting. Every time I walked up the court, Coach (McKeown) was like, “Keep shooting it.” We came down to that point, and I was like, “If you get me the ball, I will end the game.”
Abbie Wolf, senior center: And then Lindsey comes up with a clutch shot.
Northwestern outscored Nebraska 9-0 in the final three minutes. A Sydney Wood layup followed by a Jordan Hamilton three-pointer tied the game with 1:53 remaining. Pulliam’s jumper gave the team the lead, and she made two free throws to ice the game with four seconds left. Northwestern escaped, 60-56.
Lindsey Pulliam, junior guard: It just shows who we are individually and as a team because everybody on the team contributed in that game.
Abi Scheid, senior forward: Our team, everybody’s on the same page. Everybody’s trying to win. Everybody’s competing at the highest level.
Kate Popovec, Assistant Coach: More than anything what it showed was the versatility of our team and depth of our team.
Abi Scheid, senior forward: Everybody being able to contribute ultimately makes this team so special.
Lindsey Pulliam, junior guard: It really showed that we will not quit. We did not have that in our DNA. We won’t quit, and we’re not gonna give up on ourselves.
Three days later, No. 18 Northwestern won more comfortably against Rutgers. Similarly, No. 7 Maryland won at Wisconsin. The ‘Cats improved to 13-2 in the conference, having won six in a row entering their final three games, while the Terps improved to 14-2 in the conference, having won 12 in a row entering their final two games. When the Wildcats got on the bus to Madison that Friday, there was no margin for error.
Lindsey Pulliam, junior guard: We actually had a whole karaoke performance mapped out when we went to play Wisconsin. The night before, I hosted it, Syd and Courtney (Shaw) kind of put the whole thing together, made the performance list. We legit had a whole concert, karaoke version, so it was really fun. We had judges. Our athletic trainer (Kathleen Buckingham), our strength and performance coach (Lesley Moser) and Taylor (Wiseman), one of our media camera people, were the three judges, so it was fun.
Veronica Burton, sophomore guard: That one was full-blown karaoke. We had a whole plan. Everyone had little acts. Again, just kind of shows the chemistry on this team and all the different personalities. Those are the moments that keep us so close and allow us to have so much fun together.
Byrdy Galernik, senior guard: Me and Brooke (Pikiell) were supposed to perform, but if you know me and Brooke, we are never serious. We can never stop laughing. We couldn’t figure out a song that would keep us both serious and focused in a way that we could actually sing. We tried to do the “Cupid Shuffle” because we both know it, and we ended up not even knowing the words except for “Cupid Shuffle.”
Lindsey Pulliam, junior guard: We had a couple different awards. I want to say Scheid might have won “Best Vocalist,” and Veronica I think won “Best Performance.”
Byrdy Galernik, senior guard: I think the best overall was Veronica. Scheid got something for best effort maybe? Kaylah (Rainey’s) was really good. She was doing a lot of dancing. The best part about Veronica was Courtney and Lauryn (Satterwhite), they were background dancers. It was something by Fun. “We Are Young,” that’s what it was. Everybody was vibing in there. The judges enjoyed it too.
Margaret Fleming, WNUR Sports: I was kind of surprised with how chill they were the night before a conference game to be honest, but I think like we saw with the TikTok, they just like keeping it laid back.
The next day, Northwestern beat Wisconsin 82-66, propelled by a 16-0 run in the fourth quarter. Maryland had the weekend off, so the ‘Cats had now caught up with the Terps in the conference standings. Both teams sat at 14-2.
Jake Liker, WNUR Sports: We’re driving back. We’re eating our pizza, and then somebody, it’s Jordan (Hamilton) actually, starts kind of chanting very lowly, “Dairy Queen. Dairy Queen. Dairy Queen,” and she gets slowly louder and louder and louder, and it became clear what was going on.
Margaret Fleming, WNUR Sports: It was incredible. I had my headphones in. I was watching my Netflix. I just hear, “Dairy Queen! Dairy Queen!” I guess I didn’t realize the power of [being] the number one team in the Big Ten, and if they want ice cream, they’re gonna get ice cream. I didn’t really put that together until all of a sudden, the bus stops and we’re at a Dairy Queen, and we’re all running out to get it. It was so fun.
Joe McKeown, Head Coach: Anytime we see a Dairy Queen, players are always banging on the bus, “Blizzard! Blizzard! Blizzard!” It’s become trendy with our team at Northwestern over the years, not just this group. I spend a lot of money in Dairy Queen.
Veronica Burton, sophomore guard: To have your coaches do stuff like that, to reward you for your hard work is also amazing. We were all chanting “Dairy Queen” on the bus, so they pulled in. It was awesome.
Jake Liker, WNUR Sports: It was just a really nice moment, and it was cool for me because at breakfast that morning, I asked the team managers if any of them could verify for me the story of why the blizzard defense is called the blizzard defense. I had read this old ESPN story, and it said that Joe called it the blizzard defense because he would reward players when he was at New Mexico State for good defense with blizzards from Dairy Queen. All the team managers were like, “That’s funny, but no I’d never heard that.” Sure enough, after the game, we pull up to a Dairy Queen, and as I was getting back on the bus I said to Joe, “This is funny because I was going to ask you why it’s called the blizzard defense because I heard that this started because back when you were at New Mexico State…”
Joe McKeown, Head Coach: When I coached New Mexico State we started playing a little bit of that defense, and we had a Dairy Queen across the street from our arena. That’s kinda where I got it from like, “Hey, let’s call this blizzard. It’d be cool.”
Jake Liker, WNUR Sports: I just remember it as being a distinctly joyful trip, and you really felt like this team, they had it. I learned from a young age how much it matters that the team gets along and meshes together and even hangs out together because I remember watching what happened with Ben Howland and UCLA. They made the Final Four in ’06, ’07 and ’08. By 2012, they got an SI cover story on how the UCLA basketball program was falling apart, how there’s infighting and guys don’t like each other. This [Northwestern] group genuinely enjoyed being with each other. It made me believe that this team has the chemistry, the joy off the court that you need to really make a special run. It became clear to me that their record wasn’t a fluke. This is truly a unit that plays with each other, for each other and loves doing it.
Two games remained in the regular season: Ohio State and Illinois. The Buckeyes were by most accounts the last true hurdle standing between No. 14 Northwestern and a Big Ten regular season title. That matchup on Tuesday, February 25 against a Buckeye team that had won six of its last seven would be a challenge.
Joe McKeown, Head Coach: Going into that game in the hotel and the night before to the day of, we were pretty loose. We knew Ohio State had been a little bit up and down, but they were starting to really kick it into high gear. They’d been really hard to beat at home. We had beaten them the year before, but it was at our place. They were just really playing well. They were closing in on 20 wins, were gonna be in the NCAA Tournament probably, so it’s a big game for both teams.
Ben Moskow, WNUR Sports: We get into the Schottenstein Center. They knew that this game was a test. They were not gonna overlook Ohio State as an opponent. Ohio State had had some pretty impressive wins on the season. It was very much touch and go. This was not a guaranteed win at all.
Joe McKeown, Head Coach: I told our players, “Just have fun. This is what you came here for. You wanna play in these type games where there’s so much on the line, but just have fun with it. Go out and play.”
Ben Moskow, WNUR Sports: Things weren’t looking very good at the half, and then they were able to put together some nice plays. Of course, (after) the Lindsey Pulliam three she banked in from like 25, maybe 30 feet out to end the third quarter, I was like, “Oh my God. This one they for sure have in the bag.” Once that shot went in, there was no question that they were gonna win the game.
Lindsey Pulliam, junior guard: I just remember getting the ball, and I pushed it up the sideline. [The defender] was kinda off me a little bit, so I saw the time on the clock, and then Ollie, our director of operations, was right there, and I pulled it, and he’s like “That’s good,” and I was like “You’re right it IS good!” It felt good off my hand, and it went in.
Lindsey Pulliam, junior guard: It was a great feeling. You know what’s on the line. We knew that we had the chance to clinch a title come the end of the regular season, so it felt good to accomplish another game and move on to the next one.
Ben Moskow, WNUR Sports: It was just on to the next. They were looking to see if they had clinched a share of the conference that day, so they were checking up on Maryland. There were these TVs on the bus, and they instantly shoot them onto ESPN2.
As the team traveled back to Evanston, Maryland steamrolled Purdue. If the ‘Cats wanted to guarantee themselves at least a share of the Big Ten regular season title, they would have to win their regular season finale, a Senior Day showdown against Illinois. Losing Saturday’s home game to an Illini team that had only won two Big Ten games all season would leave Northwestern’s title fate in the hands of Maryland, who would play on Sunday.
Byrdy Galernik, senior guard: There was so much on my mind. Going to bed that (Friday) night, I was so excited. Right before I closed my eyes, it just hit me. I was like, “This is it.”
Glenn Geffner, WNUR Sports alum: 1989-90. My senior year, they had a great team, and we broadcast most of the games that year. I was able to broadcast a bunch of them, including when they wrapped up the Big Ten championship. It was hard to believe it had been that long because they’ve had some good teams since 1990, and they’ve had some great players come through Evanston since 1990. It was so tense through the second half of the year because you felt like they just couldn’t afford to stumble the way Maryland was playing and the way Iowa was playing. You felt like any game they might lose down the stretch would cost them any chance at winning the Big Ten. That’s why the winning streak at the end of the year was so amazing. You like to see teams rewarded. It would’ve been great to go 25-5 and finish a game out of first place in the Big Ten, but as good as they were and as special as this team seemed to be, to me, certainly they deserved at least a share of the Big Ten title.
Veronica Burton, sophomore guard: Usually some people take naps before the game. I don’t think anyone even took a nap. We were all just so excited to be there, be with each other and be able to celebrate this. But we also knew we had a game to play. Obviously, yeah it was Illinois, but at the same time it’s a Big Ten team. Any game can go any way.
Lindsey Pulliam, junior guard: Since it was Senior Night, it was kind of emotional because those guys really took care of my class and brought us in and made that family environment. It was, in a sense, their last game at home. We all knew there was absolutely no way we were gonna lose that game. So just being excited and ready to hold up that trophy, and then on top of that coming out on the court and seeing how filled the stands were already getting an hour before the game was unreal. It was just a great environment to be in.
Parker Johnson, WNUR Sports: I kind of got goosebumps just thinking back to it. I was sad I couldn’t go to the game, but somebody had to [engineer the game for WNUR]. I feel like there was a part of me that felt like it kind of fit. There were going to be a lot of people in the crowd that day who that was their first Northwestern women’s basketball game they went to.
Kate Popovec, Assistant Coach: It wasn’t for a Big Ten championship as much as it was our kids playing for our seniors. That’s really what the strength of our team was, the passion and the love they had for each other. I knew in my brain there is no way our seniors are going out tonight with a loss. It just so happened to be a Big Ten championship which was so wonderful for those seniors because I could think of a group no more worthy that had been through the battles for four years.
Abbie Wolf, senior center: It was surreal. Watching that video of all the best moments of us five seniors over the years really got to me. Everybody was tearing up a little bit during that video and then hand-in-hand with my family walking me out there. I think a lot of schools, you hug your president and athletic director and take a picture with them. But Dr. Phillips and President Schapiro have been on the sidelines since we weren’t even good. The support from the University and the way the student body came together and filled the stands, even that high level with the overflows going there, that was pretty cool. It just all came together in such a special way.
Kevin Sweeney, WNUR Sports: I felt like from the tip, there was a different energy and a different spirit about what that crowd was, and that was really, really rewarding to see. I don’t think I’ve been in a louder Welsh-Ryan.
Ben Krieger, WNUR Sports: I remember Abbie Wolf, specifically, playing terrific. She just excelled. If another team didn’t have a big that could hang with her, you noticed. She dominated teams that had weaker bigs, and so she had a stretch with three and-ones back to back to back. The Wolf of Welsh-Ryan came out, and the fans were excited.
Parker Johnson, WNUR Sports: I was so locked into the game. I don’t think I’ve ever been that into a game while engineering it. Just knowing how big the stakes were and how big of a milestone that was for the program, I felt like I was there.
Eli Karp, WNUR Sports: I will always be impressed by how the students showed up, how the Northwestern community showed up. You had like 4,000 people there. That is roughly four times the average crowd attending a Northwestern women’s basketball game this season, and you felt it. It wasn’t as if they were there just to say they were there. They were there to stand up. They were there to cheer. They were there to celebrate a Big Ten championship. I don’t know if everyone appreciated in real time what this was. But I think a lot of them got it to an extent that this hadn’t happened in 30 years.
The Wildcats took control after Illinois hung around for the first eight minutes of the game. Northwestern carried an 11-point lead into halftime, an 18-point lead into the fourth quarter, and ultimately won 75-58.
Byrdy Galernik, senior guard: It was crazy. I definitely got onto the court before it even went to zero, and it was probably a violation, but Illinois didn’t notice, so it’s fine. I ran out there to hug everyone. I was so excited. I looked at my parents and gave them a shoutout because obviously I wouldn’t be there without them.
Abbie Wolf, senior center: Everyone ran out on the court. I think I threw a towel up or something and then ran over. I was kind of distracted because the coaches are lining up to shake hands, and I wanted to dance, but I also wanted to be respectful. I took 15 seconds inside [the dance mob] and I went back to shake hands with two other girls. More and more the crowd came on the floor, and then I remember trying to rush and get through people. They were kind of making a wave, so I could get back with the team, and I saw Lauryn [Satterwhite] dancing. There was plenty of celebrating after that game.
Lindsey Pulliam, junior guard: It was so exciting. I just remember running onto the court and jumping around with the team and then seeing all these people, the students from the stands coming down. It was just a whole moment of excitement and like, “Wow. We really did it.” But then at the same time it was like, “I told everybody we were gonna do this from the beginning,” and it was really gratifying to see my word come to life.
Veronica Burton, sophomore guard: It was one of the best feelings. I don’t think any of us will ever forget it. One of the most memorable experiences of my life. Everyone storming the court. Having all the football guys, the basketball guys, all the students there supporting us, it was huge. To see the fans grow from the beginning of the season to now was incredible. We had so many people even behind the scenes supporting us in different ways. Having streamers, having everything, it was an awesome celebration, and it was so much fun. No one will forget that moment.
Kevin Sweeney, WNUR Sports: It still wasn’t real until it happened, and when it happened, it was just so remarkable and so exciting. I got to campus my freshman year, and it was logical to be playing in Evanston Township High School, but it still gave off a vibe of like, “We don’t care about you.” The feeling of “Northwestern doesn’t care” to a full lower bowl at Welsh-Ryan and a court storm was just the most remarkable swing over my three years here so far.
Byrdy Galernik, senior guard: All those sprints sophomore year when you’re dying in the summer and our record is not very good, those really mattered. It was just a great moment for me. To do it in your senior year, you can’t really end it any better.
Abi Scheid, senior forward: We put in so much sweat, so many hours into this season, just to see it pay off like that. I’ve never really had a celebration like that, so honestly it was one of the top moments of my life. I’ll remember it forever. It was just unbelievable.
Kate Popovec, Assistant Coach: It was magic. I think this whole year, that’s something I kind of learned in reflecting on it. It was magical. I looked at those girls, and to win at the level that we did, the ball has to bounce your way a little bit, but at the end of the day, you cultivate magic. It’s something you create. Our girls, our staff, our university, our program, they did that, and I can’t credit our team more. They just fought for everything that they earned. They created the magic that we all got to feel that day. The energy was tangible, and it was contagious, and it was wonderful. It’s one of those moments that you’ll remember forever. That feeling is something and those accomplishments are things that you can’t take away.
Meghan McKeown, former player: It was one of the best days of my life. Not to be dramatic, but it’s hard to put into words. We had such a dynasty at George Washington growing up, and all I knew was winning and winning titles and cutting down nets and being a part of that. When we moved to Northwestern, I was devastated having to move in the middle of high school, and we lost all the time. It’s really hard to lose. It sucks. I totally took winning for granted because we just did it all the time. To see dad, and actually be physically home this whole entire season and see every game, just to know the inner-workings of what happened and how much everybody put into this team to get to that mountaintop and to finally see dad get to cut down that net and hold that trophy, it was an absolute dream come true. It made everything, all the hardships that we had been through as a family, that he had been through at Northwestern, it just made it all worth it. I honestly thought we were never going to get to experience that moment.
Joe McKeown, Head Coach: You try to stay in the moment. I really didn’t have a chance to think about the previous 11 years. It was more just celebrating with this team and what they’ve done. It’s just a special group. When the confetti came out and people from the Big Ten give you this big trophy, you’re like, “Yeah, this is how it should be.”
Abi Scheid, senior forward: That day was kind of unreal, having Senior Day and the Big Ten championship on the same day. It’s almost like you can’t put it into words, but just seeing all the support you have, everybody celebrating at the end, it’s something you’ll remember forever. It marks what we did that season and how special this team is and will continue to be next season. I think that was a big part of not just my life, but Northwestern basketball.
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The Wildcats entered the Big Ten Tournament as the 2-seed. It was Northwestern’s best seeding in program history for the conference tournament, which the Wildcats had never won. Despite having the same conference record as Maryland, the Terrapins were awarded the 1-seed by virtue of their superior record against third-place Iowa.
Northwestern’s first opponent in Indianapolis was the 7-seed, Michigan. The Wildcats had already beaten the Wolverines twice this season––they hadn’t beaten a team three times in a season since 1996.
Kevin Sweeney, WNUR Sports: There’s a lot of things that are just weird about going on a trip an extra day early. When you’ve been on enough of these trips, you understand the rhythm of them, and the rhythm was a little bit different by showing up on Wednesday instead of Thursday for a Friday game.
Christine Brennan, USA Today Columnist: We left the Board of Trustees meeting on the Chicago campus on Friday March 6. I left with Jim Phillips and a couple other trustees and we went to meet Pat (Ryan) and his jet, and we flew from Midway down to Indianapolis. It was a wonderful experience.
Kevin Sweeney, WNUR Sports: The team had a lot of fun. I was on the Big Ten Tournament trip the previous year, and I kept remarking that the team was a lot looser than they were the previous year. The previous year, the pregame meal almost felt like a last supper. They were silent pregame and then sung happy birthday to Abbie Wolf and otherwise were silent, and it was kind of eerie. At the time, I just kind of viewed it as [having] the game face on, whatever, but when I look back and sitting there at this year’s tournament, it was just a different vibe. This team was super confident, having a lot of fun, goofing around. I was confident. I thought they were going to have a really good run. I thought they were going to win a couple games. They were trying to push for maybe a two seed in the NCAA Tournament at the time, so I think there was certainly a level of overall confidence that this team would find a way because that’s what they’d done all year long.
Ben Krieger, WNUR Sports: All season, this team, when they weren’t about to play a game, they were funny, they were relaxed, they hung out, they really liked each other a lot as people outside of just being teammates. That atmosphere really carried over until game time. Or at least until shootaround the day of, and then I think everybody was locked in.
Parker Johnson, WNUR Sports: I actually thought before the game there was a good chance that Northwestern would get tripped up. Like the rest of us, I definitely wanted to see Northwestern win so they could have a better seed in the NCAAs, but knowing at that point that the NCAA was pretty much a certainty, I wasn’t too concerned by it. I thought it was a really tough draw to get Michigan as a seven seed.
Ben Krieger, WNUR Sports: Amy Dilk and Naz Hillmon are two really good players who can hurt you. Pregame, they were mentioning the game plan, and they mentioned other players as people who would not hurt them. The key was stop Naz, don’t let Dilk kill you. It’s okay if other players are hurting you. Hailey Brown is a good player, but they wanted Hailey Brown to beat them. They wanted Maddie Nolan to beat them. And it turned out Maddie Nolan did beat them because she went from shooting 24% from three on the season to making [three] threes in that game.
Hailey Brown scored a season-high 19 points. Maddie Nolan scored a season-high 13 points. Naz Hillmon added 20 points of her own, and Northwestern lost to Michigan 67-59. The Wildcats’ first loss in 40 days sent them home from Indianapolis empty-handed.
Abbie Wolf, senior center: People were sitting in the locker room silent. You could hear a pin drop for about five to 10 minutes before Coach (McKeown) walked in. Everybody was really disappointed. We knew we were a better team than Michigan. We beat them twice already. It’s hard to beat a team three times in a row, especially a good team with players like Naz Hillmon. You were just replaying all those three-pointers that Maddie Nolan made. We really wanted the Big Ten Tournament title. Of course, you try to come up with ways it could turn out in your favor like a little extra rest going to the NCAAs where the whole world will be watching. We got our title. We just really need to focus on rehab and clean a few things up.
Veronica Burton, sophomore guard: Obviously, I was upset. We were excited about the Big Ten Tournament. We still had things to prove in that tournament, and it did not go the way we had intended. At the end of the day, we knew at the time what was to come. We had the bigger picture to look at. Tough ending, tough round in the Big Ten Tournament, but I think we really looked back at our record, looked at what we had accomplished. It was our third time playing Michigan, obviously no excuses, but we know it was tough. They have a good team.
Abi Scheid, senior forward: We just had to learn from it, watch film, see what we did wrong, see how we can improve for the first NCAA game. I think [for] everybody, it kind of fueled their fire because we knew we were better than that.
Kevin Sweeney, WNUR Sports: Northwestern knew that when they play their best basketball, they’re really hard to beat. They didn’t play their best. There was disappointment with that but also a we-got-this-one-out-of-our-system type of feeling. Obviously, they didn’t want to go home. They wanted to compete for a title. They wanted to go beat Maryland. They wanted that third chance at the Terps. It was definitely a frustration and a sadness, but not a doom and gloom situation.
Christine Brennan, USA Today Columnist: We were disappointed, everyone was disappointed with how the Wildcats had played. Certainly, they were most disappointed. We didn’t really talk to them. You could just see it in their faces. But there was so much hope for the tournament.
Noah Coffman, WNUR Sports: I knew that that loss for this team, with this veteran leadership, with the captains they have, and the leaders on the court that they have, that they were just absolutely not gonna take that loss sitting down. I was extremely hyped for the NCAA Tournament for Pulliam and Burton and the rest to unleash the pent-up aggression on whoever got the misfortune of facing them.
Lindsey Pulliam, junior guard: Our mindset was figure out what we didn’t do well and why we lost the game, learn from it and then we go into a clean slate for the NCAA Tournament. Everything that we did before didn’t matter. We were gonna be 0-0, and it was all or nothing.
The team returned to Evanston. On Sunday, Maryland beat Ohio State to win the Big Ten Tournament title. In eight days, the bracket would be released, and Northwestern would learn its NCAA Tournament fate.
Eli Karp, WNUR Sports: That period of time from late Monday, Tuesday, that entire week forward, things moved incredibly fast. Media was spreading like wildfire, schools started moving online, internships started getting canceled. The whole “we need to not have crowds” thing started setting in and those notices started going out. (NCAA President) Mark Emmert said they were confident at that point they could play without fans.
Ben Moskow, WNUR Sports: At that moment, Pat Timlin (WNUR Sports) and I were at where everything was collapsing (the Men’s Big Ten Tournament), and it seemed like the world was ending right before our eyes. We were just like, “What else is gonna fall?” It was the second day of the men’s tournament. Northwestern had just lost in the first round, but there were other teams that were gonna play for the first time. Eventually, those games get called off.
Christine Brennan, USA Today Columnist: The dominoes were falling like crazy at that point, but it all started with the NBA. 9:35 Eastern Time at night when everyone looked at their phones and saw this alert that the NBA was suspending operations. I think that was the wakeup for the entire nation. With politicians ignoring it. With someone in particular calling it “a hoax.” When you had all these people out there poo-pooing this thing, and then you have the NBA suspending operations, I don’t care if you’ve never watched an NBA game, that made you sit up. People [who] don’t even care about the NBA, you saw that, and you went, “Woah. This is serious.” I think that sports was the north star for the country at that moment, showing us the way and guiding the nation frankly with really no leadership coming from the White House on this. All of sudden, you’ve got sports as our north star showing us the way and as sports went, so went the nation. Once the NBA was suspended, at that point, the NCAA had said we’re gonna have it without spectators. Well, once the NBA suspended operations then you knew everything was going to cascade from that point on. It was inevitable.
On Wednesday March 11, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. The NBA suspended its season. But as it stood when the sun came up on March 12, the NCAA Tournament was still going to be played, albeit behind closed doors.
Veronica Burton, sophomore guard: We were about to have practice and lift, and then we were told we had a meeting. We had seen the NBA getting suspended, so at that (point) we were all pretty skeptical. We were talking about it. We were all just trying to stay positive, and then we’re told we have a meeting.
Abbie Wolf, senior center: We were all waiting for a meeting with one of the administrators, Janna Blais.
Veronica Burton, sophomore guard: We’re sitting in our film room. People are nervous at this point. It’s not looking good. Definitely a little quiet in the room. Then we get an email from Dr. Phillips, our athletic director.
Abbie Wolf, senior center: The Big Ten made a decision before the NCAA.
Veronica Burton, sophomore guard: “The Big Ten is removing themselves from everything right now, from NCAA Tournament, all spring sports.”
Abbie Wolf, senior center: I think we were all in shock at that point.
Veronica Burton, sophomore guard: It was just silent in the room.
Abbie Wolf, senior center: After the administrator started explaining it, a lot of us seniors were crying realizing it’d be one of the last times sitting in the same room as a team, best friends, everything that we’ve built throughout the years.
Kate Popovec, Assistant Coach: When we found that out, my heart broke, and I think more than anything, it broke for the seniors. I’ll never forget as soon as it happened talking to Abbie Wolf, and literally I burst into tears because I have watched that group grow right before my eyes, and I’ve grown up with them as a young coach. To know that there was no group more deserving of everything that they have earned, to be cut short that way was really heartbreaking. It was devastating.
Abi Scheid, senior forward: At first, I thought about us not being able to make the NCAA run. I didn’t so much think that my career was over. I was just bummed that this is how this amazing record-breaking season was going to end, [and] this special team wouldn’t be able to dance together.
Veronica Burton, sophomore guard: Not playing in the tournament sucked, but I think the hardest part was knowing that was it for the seniors, knowing how much they had put into Northwestern, put into basketball. No one on the team had been there yet, so we were all so excited. Processing that was definitely difficult.
Lindsey Pulliam, junior guard: At the time I was pissed off. I was pretty mad. I was upset ‘cause it felt like all that hard work and everything that we put in to make it to this moment–– I felt bad for our seniors too because they had worked four years to accomplish that. So it hurt not being able to go in and prove ourselves even more in that tournament.
Veronica Burton, sophomore guard: It didn’t really hit us for a little bit. It was weird. We’re still at the arena. What is going on? But once we started packing things up, it hits you. That was definitely the toughest part.
Ben Krieger, WNUR Sports: I was figuring out if the NCAA Tournament was going to get canceled because I was really excited to be joining the team for an NCAA Tournament. That was something I really wanted to do all four years at school. It was a tough blow for sure to get that news and just immediately realize that that experience was over for me.
Parker Johnson, WNUR Sports: I was heartbroken. It was something that me and Ben had talked about since basically the moment that we had taken over last spring [as Sports Directors of WNUR]. It was something we had literally been gearing up for for a full year. As the team was gaining momentum throughout the season, it was something we kept getting more and more excited for. From that aspect, it was just incredibly disappointing. We got to feel maybe an ounce of what the players feel where they work their whole career. Especially for the seniors, this was going to be their last ride. Their last adventure. Their last time with the team. Their time to make a stamp on history with the program. If that was even a tenth of what the players were feeling, I can’t imagine how hard it was for them, because I was certainly just incredibly disappointed.
Ben Krieger, WNUR Sports: It was very difficult to get that news because of what it meant for me personally and for what it meant for such an exciting team, one of the most exciting teams we’d ever had. To not be able to finish that season out, to not be able to host a regional, which was almost guaranteed, was just a gut punch in so many different ways.
Noah Coffman, WNUR Sports: It took a while to sink in how thorough my disappointment was. Just sad selfishly, I was really looking forward to getting a chance to cover the NCAA Tournament for a team that I’ve been rooting for for a long time, but also a group of players that I had come to supremely respect both on and off the court. To get a chance to see them on a national stage, to get a chance to watch them as they showcase their skills on national television was something I was looking forward to more than I can put into words.
Kevin Sweeney, WNUR Sports: Knowing that it was done for Scheid and for Wolf and for Byrdy and Bry (Hopkins) and Amber (Jamison) was really difficult. I have this fleeting thing of what if that was the best shot? What if that was the only Big Ten title? It’s easy to say there’s a dynasty building, and I can’t be more excited for what Joe’s building. With the talent on the roster, I think they’re going to be really good. But success is fleeting, and an injury can happen, a culture thing can happen. So much of this year was the perfect storm, and for that to go away was just kind of breathtaking.
Joe McKeown, Head Coach: There was just a great buzz about our team, and I thought if we could host the first two rounds, we’d be packed. It’d just be an awesome environment for our players, for Northwestern basketball. When it didn’t happen, you’re just really heartbroken for your seniors. They’d never played in the NCAA Tournament. They’re not gonna get a chance to because they’re seniors and they’re gonna graduate and move on to whatever’s next in their career. It’s just really hard. We just felt like this was our year, this was our team, that we could’ve made a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Whatever that meant.
Michael Wilbon, ESPN Commentator: I was sick. I knew it was coming. I didn’t have to see the news. I cover this stuff for a living. I was talking to scientists and people in the medical community. Knew this was gonna happen. We knew the tournaments were gonna be gone. I was sick. I’m still sick about it. I couldn’t talk about it. I didn’t talk to Joe. I didn’t talk to Jim Phillips. I didn’t talk to Morty. Guys I talk to pretty regularly. I didn’t talk to anybody. I just didn’t wanna talk about it because I knew how much they put into it. Everybody has their stories. Every school has their stories. All kinds of schools have senior groups who were doing this for the first time or a player who will come back for a fifth- or sixth-year medical redshirt year and didn’t get a chance to play in the tournament. Everybody’s got their stories. But our story is what I was concerned about. My freshman year at Northwestern was 1976. That’s 44 years. I’m getting damn close to 50 years of time spent at my alma mater, and you can’t take for granted that you’re gonna get these chances back. That team cannot be reassembled. The mood. The urgency they played with. Everything changes about a team. I learned that from covering sports. I was sick. I’m still sick about it.
Noah Coffman, WNUR Sports: They never really got the respect they deserved on a national scale. Now, they likely never will. That sucks. It puts the onus on us to remember and to talk about just how good this team was for all the people who will never know.
On March 12, the NCAA canceled the women’s tournament due to COVID-19, four days before the selection show. The Wildcats finished the season 26-4. They were already the winningest team in school history by the time the season was cut short.
Ben Krieger, WNUR Sports: I want to talk a little bit about how friendly the team is. Players on every team are friendly or unfriendly depending on the person, but this team really was a welcoming environment. The players are so tight-knit, which is great, but I think it starts with the general attitude that everybody on that staff and in that travel party has about being friendly, being welcoming. I was even able to mix into some of that Cards Against Humanity (at Lindsey Pulliam’s house), and I fully would’ve understood if I had not been privy to go down and hang out with them. That’s part of what drives a positive culture. It’s not just how you treat each other, but how you treat other people, and this team was really emblematic of how to do that well.
Kevin Sweeney, WNUR Sports: They were the model of what a team looks like. The culture. Coaches talk so much about culture all the time in college sports, and so much of it always feels fake and nebulous, but it was so real with this team. That was just how they operated. They were such a team. They knew how to have fun, but they were serious when they needed to be. You hear coaches talk about how they want a team that’s coached by the players and policed by the players. This team was policed by the players without a doubt. I’ll remember that’s a model for what you want a team to look like.
Meghan McKeown, former player: They were just a really selfless group. That’s really rare in sports, especially nowadays with social media and egos being so big. It’s really rare to find a group of people, of teammates, who are truly so supportive of one another. When Abi Scheid scores 1,000 points, they douse her with water bottles. When Joe McKeown gets his 700th win, they douse him with water bottles. When Veronica Burton gets named Defensive Player of the Year, they’re all over it on social media. They’re each other’s biggest cheerleaders, and that doesn’t happen often, and that’s what makes this group special.
Byrdy Galernik, senior guard: Love my girls. They’re gonna be at my friggin’ wedding if I ever get married. Bridesmaids. When you go through the trenches together, you know that those people are gonna be with you no matter what. We’ve been through basically everything you could possibly imagine, and we’re still standing on top and still talking to each other. FaceTime each other every day. Whenever this thing ever goes away, I think we’ll go back to normal. Eh, I don’t know if there’s ever a normal, but go back to Evanston and hang out.
Parker Johnson, WNUR Sports: I don’t think there will ever be a year like this in history. Given the entire outbreak and everything that’s happened, obviously I would hope that never happens again. But to combine that with the fact that there was a Big Ten title for the first time in 30 years and the story of the seniors and how much they had grown over their time, overcoming the departure of Pallas, how great some of the players were––Pulliam and Burton and everybody––when you combine that all together, if you’re thinking about it as you’re looking back on the season, what do you remember? Everything was worth remembering about that season. It was insane.
Noah Coffman, WNUR Sports: These players were connected on a level that not a lot of other players were, and you saw that on and off the court. The blizzard defense shows that. This isn’t the best defense that Joe McKeown’s ever had. But it’s up there. I’ll never forget the way it worked so smoothly even without the absolute top-tier athletes. The way it was able to outwork teams like Maryland that are recruiting the best athlete at every single position. The work ethic that this team brought to the table. The togetherness this team brought to the table. I could wax poetic all day long about the individual traits of a Burton, a Scheid, a Pulliam, et cetera, but it’s the togetherness that is memorable to me and is something that I won’t forget about this team in particular.
Veronica Burton, sophomore guard: More of my memories will be off the court than they will be on. I have never been on a team this close through all the years I’ve played basketball. The bond that we’ve created is seriously like no other. These girls will be a tight-knit group for the rest of our lives, and I really do believe that. I think it’s easier to say, but the relationships we built with this team, with the coaches and just with the school, with other student athletes, it was incredible and so memorable. That feeling of winning the Big Ten championship, knowing what it’s like for your hard work to pay off, I think that moment I will never forget. It’s hard to explain unless you’re on the inside and a part of it and get to see the relationships that have been built, but just the ending of it can’t take away from anything that was built throughout the season.
Abi Scheid, senior forward: Obviously, the Big Ten title is a huge thing, but basketball’s also brought me so many friendships, so many relationships that I’ll have the rest of my life. That is the major takeaway from this. In general, the lessons basketball and the people have taught me on and off the court.
Lindsey Pulliam, junior guard: It was just a great experience, and I wouldn’t have wanted to go through it with anybody else. My teammates, they’re some of the greatest people I’ve met in my life, so just being able to go through that whole thing with them was unmatched. I’m just blessed to be a part of it.
Kate Popovec, Assistant Coach: I hope they read this, and I hope that they know first of all thank you. I always say we coach because we want to teach our athletes, but we learn so much more from them than we can ever articulate. The way that they handled their success with such grace and with such confidence and just such joy, to be able to see so many wonderful young women afforded the opportunity to play at such a special place and have it come together like it did, that’s exactly why I coach here. I love our team. I love our girls. And I love everyone associated with our program. Just really, really grateful and humbled by the magic that we were able to have this season.
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Special thanks to Jake Liker for his tireless editing of this story. Also, thanks to John Volk for copy editing and to everyone who agreed to be interviewed during this crazy time. This story doesn’t exist without you all.
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