While Northwestern's strong freshman class had its moments against UNLV, it was ultimately the two experienced sophomores who put the game away.
Maggie Lyon and Lauren Douglas brought the 'Cats (3-0) back from a late deficit against the Lady Rebels (1-2) to grab a 57-53 win Sunday evening at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
The second-year duo combined for 23 points on the night, but it was their contributions down the stretch that merit the most attention. Douglas hit the game-tying three with 1:22 left, and Lyon followed it up with a crafty and-one layup to put NU ahead. A charge taken by Douglas with seven seconds remaining sealed the win.
It wasn't as strong a victory as the Wildcats would've hoped for, but it was still an important learning experience.
"They're probably the best competition we've played so far this year," said Lyon, "and I think although we should've beaten them by probably 20 ... it's really important to know how to finish, and I think we finished really well."
The game looked like a nail-biter right from the opening tip. Offensive struggles plagued both sides, and neither team could build a significant lead.
Northwestern tried several different defensive looks in the first half, whether it was man-to-man, a 2-3 zone or a full-court press. For the most part, it worked. UNLV shot 31.3 percent in the half and turned the ball over 11 times.
"We wanted to see if they could handle pressure, wanted to see how they would handle different formations that we used defensively," head coach Joe McKeown said. "I thought defensively, we did a really good job in the first half."
It was on the offensive end where the 'Cats struggled. The three freshman starters (Ashley Deary, Christen Inman and Nia Coffey) were able to get into the lane with their athleticism, but they couldn't finish. The trio combined to shoot two-for-15 in the half, and the 'Cats shot 24.1 percent as a team.
With the score deadlocked at 22 and under a minute remaining, Douglas blocked a shot from Aley Rohde right back into Rohde's hands, and then Douglas took a charge. As the bench exploded at her effort, it looked like the Wildcats would build momentum, but they couldn't capitalize.
Several late miscues allowed the Rebels to score twice, and they took a 26-22 lead into the locker room.
Out of the gate, Northwestern looked determined to take back the lead. 6-foot-5 center Alex Cohen stepped back to hit a three, and Lyon finished a two-on-one breakaway to put the Wildcats up 31-30 three minutes in.
When UNLV continued to battle back, Deary took over. She hit a three, scored a layup, found her teammates and got her hands on several Rebel passes as the 'Cats took control. Despite playing 38 minutes, Deary never slowed down, and McKeown said conditioning is not an issue with her.
"She's not even tired yet," he said after the game. "She's probably going to go for a 30-mile jog on the lake. She's got a different motor, and I'm really proud of her."
The visitors wouldn't go away, though. Kathy Olivier's team grabbed offensive board after offensive board, and those second chances allowed the Rebels to regain the lead. With 3:25 left, two free throws put them ahead, 49-48.
The lead was extended to 53-50, and NU was dealt an even tougher blow as Coffey fouled out. With the game slipping away, the crafty veterans took over. When Douglas had a questionable charge call go her way, UNLV's chances were dashed.
It wasn't a comfortable win, but McKeown and his team were happy to retain their undefeated record. And in outlasting the Rebels, Northwestern found out how strong its chemistry really is.
"I think we learned that we know how to play together," Douglas said. "We have the tools. We just need to put them into effect."