Nail-biters come in many different varieties; you just don’t want to be on the other end of one when the clock hits zero. Unfortunately for Northwestern (11-6, 1-3), the ‘Cats just didn’t make the right plays down the stretch and fell to Illinois (8-9, 1-3) 76-74 at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Wednesday night, despite Nia Coffey’s 20-point and seven-rebound effort.
Some losses sting more than others, and Coach Joe McKeown seemed especially upset after this one.
“We just couldn’t hold them,” he said. “I’m really disappointed.”
Illinois was on fire early, making eight of 11 shots from the floor to start the game, and led 20-16 just six minutes into the game (to put this offensive explosion into perspective, when the men’s team played Illinois on Sunday the ‘Cats had a 22-15 lead at the half).
“They [Illinois] just made a lot of shots tonight, shots that they didn’t make in previous games,” McKeown said. “Some of that may have been our defense.”
Eventually the Illini came back to earth, missing their next three shots from the floor, allowing the ‘Cats to retake the lead at 23-22. The ‘Cats were getting early contributions from Coffey and sophomore guard Maggie Lyon, who finished with 17 points and seven boards. Down the stretch she tried to take matters into her own hands at times, and really showed her leadership capabilities.
“Every game I try to set an example, even as a sophomore,” Lyon said. “I’ve seen more games then they [the freshmen] have, obviously, since it’s their first year in the Big Ten.”
The ‘Cats lead quickly disintegrated as Illinois continued to tear it up from the three, making seven of their first nine from long distance. Most of them went uncontested.
Even though the ‘Cats were shooting a ridiculous 70 percent from the field, the game was tied at 30 with seven minutes to go in the first half, mostly due to turnovers. Northwestern was losing the turnover battle 11-5.
“We knew coming in that they were a team that forced a lot of turnovers,“ freshman guard Ashley Deary said. “Just poor decision making, not being patient. We kind of let them get us out of our game and rush us a little more, and that’s our fault. We’ve got to take care of the ball.”
At the half the ‘Cats were down 43-39 despite shooting over 20 percent better than Illinois.
A few minutes in to the second half, the ‘Cats were still allowing wide open three point opportunities.
“I think that we over helped a lot, and we will see that in film tomorrow,” Lyon said. “It’s definitely something we need to work on.”
Luckily for the ‘Cats, the Illini started the second half 1-of-6 from the three.
With under 12 minutes to go, the ‘Cats were down 54-52 and had cooled off considerably from the field. Then a huge three pointer by Lyon gave the ‘Cats their first lead since the end of the first half.
But the Illini wouldn’t quit, and with six minutes to go they took a 62-61 lead, forcing the ‘Cats to call a timeout.
With under a one minute to play, the ‘Cats were down 74-72 and in desperate need of a stop. Instead they fouled guard Sarah Hartwell, who made her two from the line. Coffey responded with a pair of her own free throws. Game on.
Northwestern got the ball back after an Illinois turnover for one last chance. With six seconds left, Deary took the ball from the end of the court and hustled up the floor.
There would be no final shot though, as Deary, who is usually sure-handed, tried to spin around two Illini players and was stripped. It was the ‘Cats 17th turnover of the game, and it ultimately sealed their fate.
“I thought that Ashley was really aggressive, and we wanted the ball in her hands,” Lyon said. “Unfortunately, Illinois made a good defensive play, but I think that it was a good play planned up, and the next time we do it we’ll execute it.”
Northwestern will look to recover from this one when they face Wisconsin at home on Saturday.