Column: This Win Means More
By Eric Rynston-Lobel
Northwestern’s dominant victory over Michigan felt like more than just a win. It was a victory over a year in the making.
One year ago today, the NCAA Tournament was canceled. The Wildcats, who’d lost 67-59 to the Wolverines in the Big Ten Tournament Quarterfinals less than a week earlier, wouldn’t have a chance to dance after their magical 26-4 season. The bitter taste of that loss to Michigan, the sight of Maddie Nolan improbably draining three-pointers and the sound of the Michigan fight song ringing throughout Bankers Life Fieldhouse was the final act for that team. They didn’t deserve that. They deserved so much more.
Every team has its stories. Every team has its magical seasons. But Northwestern women’s basketball losing the opportunity to have played in the NCAA Tournament last year with that team still stings. This program doesn’t often receive the national attention it deserves. These freakishly talented players who dedicate so much don’t get the attention they deserve. Hosting an Evanston regional was going to be that opportunity to showcase Wildcat women’s basketball. Instead, watching the Michigan players scream in excitement is the last memory we have of that team.
“We never got a chance to prove how good we really were,” head coach Joe McKeown said after Thursday’s win. “We felt like we had a team that could make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. We had earned the opportunity to host the first two rounds, be a two or a three seed. Lot of great things we left on the table.”
Of course, this year’s team is different. But the culture is still there. The confidence and energy is still there. The drive to win is still there. And on Thursday, it felt like Northwestern proved itself.
“There’s some carryover right now with this team,” McKeown said. “They want to prove that they belong amongst the elite in college basketball.”
Let’s face it: this year’s team didn’t have the same flare or surprise as last year’s. But what it does have is experience. Experience, despite not having a player on the roster who’s played in an NCAA Tournament game.
Early January this year presented a chance to avenge that Big Ten Tournament loss, with the Wolverines coming to Evanston. Instead, the ‘Cats were run out of the gym. Thoroughly outplayed from the tip, it was a clear reversal of roles from the previous year: Michigan was a Big Ten favorite, Northwestern was a decent team, but not as good as the year before. The aura of last year’s team felt like a thing of the distant past. Lindsey Pulliam wasn’t so sure.
“Walking out of that game, we kinda said, ‘Don’t forget how this felt’ because we knew we were gonna see them again,” she said last week.
But over the next two months, Northwestern continued to have its ups and downs. Two victories over Iowa, a win over Ohio State and a win at Michigan State built some confidence. But losses to Indiana, Nebraska and Maryland served as painful reminders that this team isn’t as good as last year’s.
Fast forward to Thursday, and Northwestern’s win carries more weight to it. This team may be different from last year. But the identity is still there. The will to win is still there. The nucleus of Burton, Pulliam and Wood is still there. Thursday’s win erases that sour taste from last year in Indianapolis. And while it may have come a year too late, it provides vindication.
“You could just see it in their eyes,” McKeown said. “They just felt like, ‘We’re ready, coach. Let’s go play.’”