Takeaways: Northwestern dismantles Eastern Illinois in season opener

By Kikue Higuchi

Northwestern women’s basketball is back and it did not disappoint, despite doubts cast by the loss of key pieces, the uniqueness of last season and the craziness of 2020.

The two key questions entering this season were: (1) Who replaces the Abbies/Abis? And (2) will a smaller Wildcat team stumble on offense? It’s a small sample, but early returns were positive for both in the Wildcats’ whopping 93-57 victory over Eastern Illinois Thursday. Here are three things that answered those two questions in game one.

We Can Count On Courtney:

I said it when we knew that this team would be in for a season in 2020: look for Courtney Shaw to make up for Abbie Wolf’s production in the paint. Shaw fit perfectly into the starting center role in game one. In the post-game press conference, Head Coach Joe McKeown said she had one of her best games ever. The statistics say so too. In her first career start, she put up a career-high of 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting from the field, the highest percentage of anyone who scored. Shaw also attacked the glass and grabbed four offensive rebounds, something the ‘Cats struggled with last season. So while she’s making up for points lost without Wolf, she’s adding her own element of aggression to the floor. She honed her game while she waited patiently for her turn on the court and it showed tonight. Shaw has stepped up the way Abbie Wolf did when Northwestern lost Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah — and we all know how that turned out. If she stays aggressive and maintains her consistency, the Wildcats may be in for a repeat of last season’s magic. 

The Look From Deep:

The loss of the inside-out offense Northwestern was able to run last season was the biggest concern for this year. With concerns in the paint addressed, it’s time to look beyond the arc. The ‘Cats lost Abi Schei, the best 3-point shooter in the country, but it looks like we don’t have much to worry about … for now. The ‘Cats shot 38.5% from deep against the Panthers with five 3-pointers, which puts them right around last year’s average: 36% and 5.9 per game. Lindsey Pulliam and Veronica Burton each put up two apiece, on five and three attempts respectively. Both players said they were working on their performance from three in the off season to make up for Scheid’s production, and I’d say they’ve succeeded. Jordan Hamilton also had a three, but I think she would even say that she wanted a more consistent performance from herself. Nonetheless, she’s always got Northwestern in those clutch moments and if Burton and Pulliam continue to pick up their 3-point percentage, the Wildcats will look good this season. 

Wood and Burton Haven’t Missed a Beat:

While the changes on offense are at the forefront of everyone’s mind, we have to remember that the defense is essential to the success of Northwestern’s new look on offense. Every one of the starting five had a steal and even first-year Paige Mott picked up the rock for the ‘Cats. Sydney Wood and Burton picked up five steals apiece, which is a new career-high for Wood. Their defense against Eastern Illinois allowed them to run the fast-paced, high-powered offense that they wanted to this year with a smaller starting five. The takeaways on one side of the court almost always led to points on the other side, which was key for their 93-point victory, 36 of which came off turnovers. If they keep up the defensive efforts, they can control the pace of the game and succeed with a movement-based offense designed for a smaller team. 

The Bottom Line

All these things suggest that Northwestern is in for another historic season filled with dubs and happiness. However, Eastern Illinois is not a Big Ten Team. A good performance against them is heartening, but the Panthers aren’t exactly contenders for the NCAA Tournament so it doesn’t mean as much as Northwestern fans probably want it to. Then again, the starting five were replaced by the bench by the second half. The true litmus test will come against Minnesota next week and we’ll have to see if the biggest questions of this season stay answered.