After back-to-back come-from-behind victories against Purdue and Michigan, the Wildcats (20-6, 10-5) asserted themselves at home Wednesday night, burying No. 21 Nebraska (18-8, 8-7) 59-51 for their sixth consecutive win.
Nia Coffey scored 17 points in her sixth straight double-double, Lauren Douglas dropped 15 off the bench and the defense held steady against a late Nebraska surge as coach Joe McKeown earned his first 20-win season at the Wildcat helm.
The Cornhuskers have struggled to find a rhythm since losing leading scorer Rachel Theriot to a leg injury. But not even McKeown was prepared for a Wildcats zone defense that knocked Nebraska completely out of sync. The Cornhuskers shot just 3-of-28 in the first half.
“If you had told me that at five o’clock, I wouldn’t have believed you,” McKeown said. “I would have been happy to hold them to ten [shots].”
The first period was all ‘Cats. Northwestern jumped out early, scoring eight points – five of which came from Karly Roser – before Nebraska could land a shot. With Christen Inman injured, Roser has sunk into her starting role, finishing Wednesday’s contest with 10 points and a season-high nine rebounds.
Roser said she was able to perform in part because she knew Nebraska would overlook her.
“Since they didn’t really know where I was, I could attack the glass and get some of those rebounds," she said. “It is really important because you get those extra possessions and thirty seconds of shot clock.”
Nebraska landed a couple mid-range jumpers, but the Wildcats kept pounding. They had a 25-6 advantage less than seven minutes before the half, and led 29-12 at the break.
Northwestern faltered only on the boards in the first half, allowing the Cornhuskers 10 offensive rebounds and numerous second chances. But that proved inconsequential as the 'Cats stifled Nebraska on almost every attempt.
Northwestern also forced 10 first-half turnovers, intercepting multiple passes and repeatedly taking the ball directly out of Cornhusker hands. Ashley Deary finished with three steals, while Nia Coffey collected four blocks. Three weeks after surrendering 19 three-pointers in a loss to Iowa, Northwestern held Nebraska scoreless from behind the arc for the first twenty minutes.
“We just had the mentality that they were not going to score,” Coffey said.
Northwestern’s advantage stretched to 46-27 in the second period, but with less than a quarter of the game left to play, Nebraska suddenly found its rhythm. A 15-2 run brought the Huskers to within six with two minutes to play.
“As well as we were playing defense we did have a breakdown,” Coffey said, “and we had to come together and just get back to that mentality that they were not going to score and finish up strong.”
Come together they did. Lauren Douglas hit a big three-pointer, and no amount of intentional fouls could stop the scoreboard clock indefinitely.
Northwestern pulled out its second win against a ranked opponent this season, but the stakes may be higher next week. On Sunday, the 'Cats travel to Wisconsin before finishing their season at home against No. 18 Rutgers and No. 5 Maryland.
Northwestern grabbed 18 votes in the AP poll last week. A couple well-executed victories could spring the ‘Cats into the Top 25 and put them in prime position before the Big Ten Tournament and, ultimately, the NCAA Tournament.