It was the battle of superstars, and Northwestern’s Nia Coffey had the edge over senior forward Jordan Hooper, as her Wildcats (13-7, 3-4 Big Ten) defeated the No. 21 Cornhuskers (13-5, 3-3) 63-59 at Welsh-Ryan Arena Sunday.
“I think we had a little extra in our tank,” head coach Joe McKeown said. “After the game in Lincoln, which came down to the buzzer, that we thought like we could go toe to toe with them, and just made a couple more plays at the end.”
Hooper came into the game second in the Big Ten in points and rebounds. For someone who averages 19 points and 10 rebounds however, her 11 and eight, respectively, were pretty pedestrian.
Coffey, on the other hand, had arguably her best game of the season. She finished with 22 points, 10 rebounds, four steals and three assists. It was her defense on Hooper, though, that was just as impressive, especially in the second half.
“I thought Nia did a great job just knowing where she was and not letting her get the ball in great possession,” McKeown said.
Early on, the ‘Cats seemed destined for an easy victory, as they took a quick 13-8 lead with 50 percent shooting.
Then Hooper went on a little run of her own, with four points and an assist to give Nebraska the lead. For one of her buckets she simply imposed her will down low and put in a layup with ease. In the first half, the ‘Cats weren’t able to defend her shot from anywhere on the court. That changed in the final 20 minutes.
By the second TV timeout, Northwestern had retaken the lead, behind Coffey’s early eight points. The battle was on, as the two of these phenoms would go back and forth for the remainder of the first half.
With under three minutes to go, Nebraska had built a 28-23 lead, and the ‘Cats looked winded on the floor. They could have easily mailed it in for the rest of the half but didn’t, and their play down the stretch paid dividends. A clutch three by sophomore guard Maggie Lyon gave Northwestern its first lead since they were up 17-16, and the two teams went into the half tied at 34.
“Our thing was to go hard every minute because every possession counts,” freshman guard Ashley Deary said.
In the second half, Coffey looked like the only superstar on the court.
In fact, Hooper only got one shot off in the first six minutes of the second half, despite demanding the ball on each possession. Obviously, Hooper was a huge point of emphasis during McKeown’s halftime speech to his team.
“So we really focused on limiting her touches, and just making sure that when we switch, to make sure that we keep our hands up, because she’s a really good three point shooter,” Coffey said.
With under 10 minutes to go, the ‘Cats held a 48-47 lead, and Hooper was no longer a factor. She had finally started getting her shots off, but they just weren’t falling.
Her teammates though, picked up the slack. Husker junior point guard Tear’a Laudermill scored nine of her team high 18 points in the second half, while three other teammates chipped in with at least six points.
With 1:36 left in the game the score was tied at 57 and the crowd was on its feet. They remember the ‘Cats two point loss to Nebraska three weeks ago; they knew how much this game meant for their team’s tournament hopes.
After a Husker turnover, the ‘Cats had the ball with a two point lead, a chance to put this one away for good. Freshman guard Christian Inman found herself open at the top of the key, and proceeded to nail the biggest shot of the ‘Cats season thus far behind the arc with 31 seconds to go.
“That was one of our motion plays, and Christian was open right off of it,” Deary said. “She did a good job knocking it down.”
When the final buzzer sounded the ‘Cats gathered to celebrate at midcourt, exited and relieved.
“We just needed a win like this,” McKeown said. “It shows how good we can be.”
Northwestern will look to ride the momentum of this one when they take on Indiana on the road Thursday.