The last day Northwestern women’s basketball played in the NCAA Tournament was March 15, 1997, at the Charles E. Smith Center in Washington, D.C.
The Wildcats, coming off a fourth-place finish in the Big Ten, had earned a bid as the 12th seed in the East Region of the NCAA Tournament. They had visions of a deep tourney run, but George Washington, led by then-head coach Joe McKeown, stood in their way.
The fifth-seeded Colonials had gone undefeated in the Atlantic 10 conference that season and ultimately won 18 of their 19 home games – including that Saturday’s game.
“We had a great team and we got to the [Elite Eight] that year,” McKeown, now Northwestern’s head coach, recalled after practice last week. “We had a really good game with Northwestern too, ended up winning by about 15 or so.”
Indeed, the Wildcats’ tournament run ended as soon as it began, as McKeown’s George Washington squad handed them a 61-46 loss. Now, nearly two decades later, McKeown is the man being tasked with a difficult assignment: leading Northwestern back for the first time since that March 15 game.
In the ensuing seasons, the Wildcats have still left their mark beyond the regular season. Northwestern’s National Invitation Tournament (NIT) appearance last year marked the 13th postseason appearance in the history of the women’s basketball team and the third in the last five years.
Still, the ultimate goal is making it back to the NCAA Tournament.
“It would just be great. We’ve laid so much foundation since I’ve been here,” said McKeown, who is entering his seventh season at Northwestern. “You want to see that pay off at some point down the road. I think it would be great for the culture of our program, but we’re also focused on just getting better too. You know, that’s a goal every team has.”
Who better to lead Northwestern back than the man whose team defeated the Wildcats in their last tourney appearance? McKeown is, after all, just the 34th coach in NCAA history with 500 or more wins, and with 597 for his career, he’s just three victories away from joining elite company.
The improvement of McKeown’s players directly reflects his teaching – especially in the case of senior forward/center Alex Cohen, who has benefitted from her coach’s instruction during her career at Northwestern.
“Coach McKeown’s been great,” Cohen said. “Personally, I’ve transformed in the last three, four years and [have] become a completely different player, and I attribute that a lot to Coach McKeown. He’s helped me grow a lot since I got here.“
Cohen’s shooting percentage has improved every season at Northwestern. When she was given a starting role for the first time last season, she shot .483 from the floor and also hit on nearly half of her three-pointers (16-for-35) after shooting .304 from beyond the arc the season before. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that she’s feeling good about the season.
But does she feel any pressure to make that first tournament appearance since 1997?
“I wouldn’t say pressure, necessarily,” Cohen said. “I’m really confident in our team right now. We’ve been practicing really well in the last couple weeks and we have a lot of experience back from last year. So I’m really excited to see where the season’s gonna go.”
It’s easy to draw parallels between Northwestern’s 1996-97 and 2014-15 squads. The latter team has Cohen, a sharpshooting forward who is efficient in all aspects of her offensive game. The older team had Kristina Divjak, also a forward, whose 80 three-pointers that season still stands as the third-most in a single Northwestern season, behind only her own total from the following season (82 in 1997-98) and the 85 treys her teammate Michele Ratay knocked down the season before.
Divjak, who is married to former Northwestern men’s basketball (and NBA) standout Evan Eschmeyer, combined with Ratay to form one of the Wildcats’ most prolific scoring duos in the program’s history in 1996-97. Ratay’s 19.0 points per game that season still stands as the ninth-best single-season total in Wildcats history, and Divjak’s 18.9 PPG average ranks a hair behind at 10th all-time.
Junior guard Maggie Lyon – winner of Northwestern’s first ever Big Ten Freshman of the Year award in 2013 – knocked down 65 three-pointers last season, a total only eclipsed by Divjak and Ratay in the history of NU women’s basketball. Could Cohen and Lyon form a forward-guard duo akin to the Divjak-Ratay tandem of 18 seasons before – while leading the team to a tournament appearance along the way?
McKeown keeps things in perspective when assessing his team’s chances.
“You can only control so many things,” he said. “Whether a committee votes you in or out … it’s things that are just really out of your control.”
While he coached at George Washington, McKeown’s Colonials were almost a perennial lock for a postseason berth. During his 19 seasons there, GW failed to make it to the NCAA Tournament only four times, twice appearing in the NIT instead. Though replicating that success at Northwestern has proven difficult, McKeown has overseen the program’s first WNBA draft pick (Amy Jaeschke in 2011), the first freshman named First Team All-Big Ten (Nia Coffey last season) and of course Lyon as the first Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
All the while, he’s helped the Wildcats grow tremendously as a team; the results on the court speak for themselves. After Northwestern won 14 in-conference games (and lost 132) in the nine years before he came to the school, McKeown has led the team to a 30-70 mark in the Big Ten and an 88-101 record overall.
Part of that comes from the lessons he’s drawn from Don Perrelli, Northwestern women’s basketball’s most successful coach and the man whose team McKeown beat more than 17 years ago.
“He’s a good friend of mine,” McKeown said. “I talk to him all the time. He watches our games on the Big Ten Network and we have a really strong relationship.”
The .313 winning percentage in in the Big Ten in 2013-2014 isn’t where Northwestern or McKeown want to be, but with a solid footing to build off of, the Wildcats could one day return to the winning culture of Perrelli’s time, when the women’s basketball team made five NCAA Tournament appearances in 15 seasons from 1984 to 1999.
In recruiting Coffey, a four-star recruit according to ESPN, McKeown gave a taste of what he expects to come for his team. Even the players who are on their way out are excited for what NU women’s basketball can achieve in coming seasons.
“I know we’re still a developing program,” said senior guard Karly Roser, who will join Cohen and Lyon as key starters on the team this season. “We want to get to that point where we’re consistently making the tournament, so hopefully this will be the first year we can start doing that.”