NU escapes Rutgers, earns third conference win

By Bradley Locker

It wasn’t exactly how coach Joe McKeown and the Wildcats envisioned it, but Northwestern (11-4, 3-1 B1G) got the job done on Thursday night, defeating the Rutgers Scarlet Knights 68-63.

To little surprise, Veronica Burton led the way for NU yet again, contributing 18 points, nine assists and three rebounds while playing all 40 minutes of a hard-fought battle. First-year Caileigh Walsh overcame initial shooting woes to add 13 points, and senior Courtney Shaw tallied 11 points and a team-high six rebounds.

In the first quarter, the ‘Cats struggled quite a bit. Northwestern scored just 10 points, going more than two minutes into game action before getting a basket to fall. Meanwhile, Rutgers (7-11, 0-6 B1G) got out to an early 6-0 lead courtesy of three-pointers from Lasha Petree and Shug Dickson.

However, McKeown & Co. found their groove in the second frame. After falling behind 17-12 with 7:41 in the half, the Wildcats erased the deficit via two free throws from Burton and a three from Hartman, the latter of whom accumulated nine points — all of which came beyond the arc — off the bench.

As the Wildcats heated up on the offensive end, their defense returned to its crushingly cold “Blizzard” form. The Knights had five turnovers in the period and frequently hoisted difficult jumpers with just seconds left on the shot clock.

Up 32-25 entering halftime, Walsh stole the show in the third. The 6-foot-3 forward notched a three in the opening minute and amassed eight of the ‘Cats’ 21 points in the quarter. However, Rutgers’ Osh Brown kept the game within reach for the Scarlet Knights, posting nine points of her own — including a buzzer-beater — to keep RU seven entering the final portion of the contest. Brown finished with 22 points and 16 rebounds.

A Brown turnaround jumper with 9:24 remaining drew Rutgers within five, but Melannie Daley made aggressive, baseline shots to halt the Knights’ surge and extend NU’s lead to nine.

After a Burton free throw made it 60-50 Wildcats, coach C. Vivian Stringer’s squad didn’t flinch one bit. An and-one from Brown returned the margin to seven, and Joiya Maddox and Petree nailed threes to cut NU’s advantage to four inside of four minutes.

With two minutes to spare, Shaw converted from the charity stripe, giving Northwestern a 64-59 hold. But the Scarlet Knights fired right back, as Maddox cashed in on a four-point play to draw within one.

All year, McKeown has consistently relied upon his first-years, especially in grand moments. Thursday was no exception: inside of 50 seconds, Daley snatched a bad pass and went coast-to-coast as NU took a 66-63 lead.

The Wildcats’ stifling hands proved dividends yet again. While Rutgers had a chance to tie the matchup, Hartman stole the ball to put the game on ice, giving way to two Burton free throws that officially concluded the hard-fought, high-intensity duel.

After downing the Scarlet Knights, Northwestern travels to East Lansing, Michigan, where the Wildcats will spar with the Michigan State Spartans on Sunday, January 16 at 1 p.m. CT. John Volk and Margaret Fleming will have the call for WNUR Sports on Mixlr and 89.3 FM.