Wood ties career high as Northwestern dominates Niagara

By Logan Schiciano

In just her fifth game back from an injury that caused her to miss most of last season, Sydney Wood tied her career high with 19 points and Northwestern women’s basketball cruised to a 76-38 win over Niagara University Tuesday night.

Niagara traveled to Evanston for the first time in program history to take on Northwestern. Although the Purple Eagles feature two of the MAAC’s brightest stars in Angel and Aaliyah Parker, they proved no match for the Wildcats.

Northwestern raced out to a 14-4 lead behind a couple of jump shots from Jillian Brown. The sophomore has been struggling to find a rhythm early this season but pieced together a solid 11-point performance in 19 minutes on Tuesday.

Northwestern’s lead continued to grow throughout the evening and by halftime it was 38-16. While Niagara averaged the most steals per game in the country last year, the ‘Cats were able to break the Purple Eagles’ full-court press and get easy transition baskets.

The benefactor on several of the fastbreak buckets was point guard Kaylah Rainey, who blew by her previous career-high of four assists in the first half and finished the game with nine dimes. Wood said she has been impressed with Rainey’s improved court vision so far this season.

“Kayla told me at shootaround she was working on her passing, and I think she did a really good job just looking up and placing the ball exactly where people needed to be,” Wood said. “She’s bringing her own flare to the game which is really good.”  

Though the contest was firmly in Northwestern’s control after the halftime break, the ‘Cats continued to play hard on defense. They limited the Parker sisters to a combined 16 points – they came into the game averaging 18.3 and 19.3 points respectively.

“I thought our defense tonight was a lot better,” Northwestern Head Coach Joe McKeown said. “We kept them out of the lane and really locked in on [Angel Parker] tonight.”

As the night unfolded the big story was the strong play of Wood, who shot an efficient 8-12 from the field and tied her career high with 19 points. She showed flashes of the player who earned a spot on the Big Ten All-Defensive team just two years ago, notching five steals on the night.

“At the beginning of this season I was just trying to find my way back,” Wood said. “I feel like I’m starting to hit my groove in the game, being really aggressive on defense, getting out and attacking the basket.”

Courtney Shaw also had a strong performance, recording her 10th career double-double. The fifth-year forward had 17 points and corralled 11 boards, helping the ‘Cats win the rebound battle 53-26.

One area of concern for the Wildcats on Tuesday and throughout the beginning of this season is ball security. Northwestern had 26 turnovers on the night and is averaging 19.2 per game for the season. Last year they averaged just 13.6.

“We got to clean up, there’s no question,” McKeown said. “We tried to make some ‘Joe Montana to Jerry Rice’ plays instead of keeping the ball and getting back on [defense].”

Though the Wildcats were ahead by over 30 points for the entire fourth quarter, McKeown didn’t empty his bench until the final few minutes and the lack of playing time for veterans like Laya Hartman was notable. The senior had a breakout 2021-22 campaign, averaging 7.6 points per game on 38.7% from beyond the arc; however, she’s averaging just 3.4 points in nine minutes per game this year.

“We have a lot of people we’re trying to figure out who can play with who, but I know what Laya’s capable of and I think she has that explosion on offense,” McKeown said postgame when asked if there was a specific reason for Hartman’s reduced playing time.

With the 76-38 victory, the ‘Cats have their first winning streak of the year and are over .500 for the first time this season as well. 

The ‘Cats are back in action Sunday against Valparaiso. Northwestern will then hit the road for a battle with the Duke Blue Devils in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge next Thursday.