For the Northwestern women’s basketball team, this season was a chance to complete coach Joe McKeown’s overhaul of the program. After taking over the ‘Cats in 2008, McKeown struggled to win games and the team stumbled to a 7-23 finish. Then, as McKeown began to bring his own recruits to the program, the ‘Cats made one of the most dramatic transitions in NCAA history. The team finished 18-15 in the ’09-’10 season and 19-14 last season. Each season ended with a WNIT berth.
With a roster full of McKeown’s own recruits for the first time, this season’s team had high potential for an NCAA tournament bid. The loss of starting senior forward Brittany Orban after just six games was a crushing blow, and since then the ‘Cats have had a wild, inconsistent season. A dramatic win against Illinois on Jan. 16 had Northwestern in solid position at 12-6, but two double-digit losses – at home against Michigan and then on the road against Wisconsin – weaken Northwestern’s postseason hopes. The Wildcats are just 2-5 in conference and 3-7 in the team’s last 10 games. Now at 12-8 and with a tough Big Ten schedule ahead, Northwestern will need an impressive finish if the team wants to complete the great McKeown reversal. A look back on how the ‘Cats reached this point in the season:
The ‘Cats got out to a red-hot start this season, winning nine of their first 10 games. While a pair of juniors, center Dannielle Diamant and forward Kendall Hackney, led the charge, two freshmen proved their worth in the starting lineup. Point guard Karly Roser steadily commanded the team while guard Morgan Jones (sister of reserve junior guard Tailor) became a solid scoring threat.
The streak was highlighted by a thrilling 45-44 road victory over No. 23 Louisiana State and another close road win, a 74-70 decision over Missouri in the Big 10/Big 12 Challenge. In the LSU game, Morgan Jones showed maturity beyond her years, sinking two free throws with 11 seconds left to seal the victory for the ‘Cats and push their record to 4-0. Despite shooting just 3-16 from the field, Jones stayed aggressive and finished the game with 11 points and nine rebounds. Brittany Orban added 13 points and seven boards while playing all 40 minutes.
Against Missouri, the ‘Cats utilized their size and outstanding post presence, as Hackney and Diamant combined for 40 points and 10 rebounds. Diamant was also perfect from the free throw line, making all 10 attempts. The win gave the ‘Cats another critical road win and a 6-1 record.
After the ‘Cats jumped out to a 9-1 start, expectations were high for Joe McKeown’s overachieving squad. But with blowout losses to Kansas State and Toledo just before the start of conference play, the ‘Cats revealed some major weaknesses. In perhaps its worst game of the season, Northwestern scored just 14 points and was down 25 before Coach McKeown could even give his halftime speech. Northwestern shot just 14-53 from the field (and 3-20 from three-point range) and lost to Kansas State 64-45, dropping the team to 10-3 heading into conference play.
Conference Highs, Conference Woes
Coming off a 19-point loss to Toledo, Northwestern came into conference play cold and it showed in their 31-point loss on the road against Iowa. Against Minnesota, the ‘Cats fought hard, clawing their way back from a 17-point deficit to make it close at the finish before the Gophers prevailed 68-60 in Evanston. Two more losses, each by 10 points to No. 11 Ohio State on the road and Michigan at home put Northwestern’s tournament hopes into question. In their last game, a 20-point loss at Wisconsin, the ‘Cats dropped to 12-8 on the season and just 2-5 in conference play.
Still, Northwestern’s developing team showed promise in its two conference wins, on the road against Indiana and at home against Illinois (although those two teams are both 0-7 in the Big Ten and are the bottom feeders of the conference). The ‘Cats won their first game in Bloomington since 1998 as Danielle Diamant sank six free throws in the final minute to bring home the win.
In its other conference win, Northwestern defeated Illinois 59-58 in a thrilling back-and-forth battle. With the game tied at 58 and Northwestern with possession, Roser sprinted the ball up the court, trying to set up a teammate for a last second shot, but as she split defenders just past midcourt, the refs blew the whistle. Roser stepped up to the free throw line with 2.6 seconds left and a chance to win the game for the ‘Cats. During the timeout, Coach McKeown gave Roser a big hug, trying to calm the freshman’s nerves. Roser missed the first free throw, but on her next attempt she knocked down the shot and gave Northwestern the lead. Illinois failed to score on a desperation attempt as the clock hit triple zeroes, and the ‘Cats came away with a dramatic victory.
The women have been inconsistent at best, but they are still afloat with a 12-8 schedule. Still, with just a 2-5 record in Big Ten play and tough conference games coming up, the team has to hope that its freshmen stay poised and its veterans can lead the team to a hot streak that will keep its tournament chances alive. This week, the 'Cats face both Purdue and Indiana at home. The women should look to capitalize on homecourt advantage and use these games to kick-start their season revival campaign.