Takeaways: Northwestern falls to Nebraska at the buzzer

By Kikue Higuchi

Nebraska dealt No. 15 Northwestern its first loss of the season Thursday by virtue of a buzzer beater put-back from leading scorer Sam Haiby.

The final minutes were a whirlwind, with Northwestern frantically trying to chip away at a 7-point Nebraska lead. Jordan Hamilton came up with two clutch finishes to tie the game twice in the final minutes. Northwestern’s last possession was stopped short by an early missed jumper from Lindsey Pulliam and Nebraska got the ball. Haiby drove from the right wing and her first shot came up short, but she was able to secure the offensive rebound and win the game for the Huskers. 

For the most part, Northwestern did everything that its done all season successfully. The ‘Cats had 23 points off of 24 Nebraska turnovers; they had 11 fast-break points to Nebraska’s two and they racked up 15 steals for the fourth time this season. Converting off of turnovers and pushing the pace of the game has been Northwestern’s calling card all season, and it was working. Until today. Haiby’s game-winning play is all you really need to see to understand a big part of Northwestern’s loss today: it got beat at the glass.

Even in the first half when Northwestern was shooting well Nebraska was only a few points behind. What kept the Huskers in the game, especially in the first half, was being able to come up with the rebound and maintain possession. Nebraska had 47 total rebounds to Northwestern’s 35, beating the Wildcats soundly on defense, 32 to 18. While the ‘Cats narrowly eclipsed the Huskers with 17 offensive rebounds to 15, they also went 24-of-68 from the field. Of 44 missed shots, they only had 17 second chance opportunities. Meanwhile the Huskers had 30 misses with a chance to recoup on 15 of them.

Northwestern’s troubles at the glass were compounded by significant scoring droughts, especially in the third quarter. The ‘Cats went 1-of-12, their one field goal coming from a Veronica Burton lay-up in the final 10 seconds. This was their worst shooting performance so far this season, which is just the latest installment in a slow decline of their accuracy since the beginning of conference play. Nebraska also beat Northwestern from beyond the arc, going 9-of-20 from three. The Wildcats only managed 5-of-16 from deep, but this is pretty much their average three-point performance so far in Big Ten basketball. 

This was also a pretty average showing from the ‘Cats in rebounding as it was just the first time their offensive strategy hasn’t been able to account for lack of control on the glass. It also marked the first time that we’ve seen them really struggle with the loss of the Abi/Abbies in the way they were expected to. They couldn’t compete for possession time and their production from deep just couldn’t keep up. A bad shooting day from the charity stripe dragged them down even further. They went under 50% from the line which robbed them of some easy points, especially after reaching the bonus in the third quarter. 

Courtney Shaw pulled down three offensive boards in the fourth quarter while Hamilton scored seven of her 12 points. Their production brought the ‘Cats back within reach of a win after trailing for the entire third quarter but it seemed to be too little, too late. If they had played like that consistently through the entire game, Northwestern could have easily kept the Huskers at bay. The one bright spot of the game was that Pulliam took the reins on the offense and pulled out 19 points. She now holds the sixth place for all-time scoring in program history with 1,712 career points, although her percentage wasn’t much better than the team’s.

Now the question becomes how will this team stack up against more talented, and bigger, teams in the Big Ten. To secure another championship Northwestern still needs to see more consistent play from its new starters, Hamilton and Shaw. It also wouldn’t hurt if Sydney Wood could have a few more big offensive games like she had against Minnesota. Burton and Pulliam can’t afford to have really bad games, and so far it seems like they haven’t. All of the starters have to get to the glass more, especially if their accuracy keeps falling. It would help if their shooting percentages started improving, rather than the steady fall that’s emerged as the season has worn on. With Pulliam starting to show her touch again it seems like that might be within reach. 

Northwestern will face No. 16 Michigan in three days. After giving the ‘Cats trouble last year, Michigan returned all five starters and are off to a 6-0 start. The Wolverines are averaging 44 rebounds per game and 40% from three. However, Michigan is averaging 15.5 turnovers per game and Northwestern averaged 14.8 steals per game. If the ‘Cats can improve off the glass and get their small ball offense rolling again they have a clear shot, but today’s performance was not a reassuring look ahead at the rest of the season.