There was a time when we were all certain Northwestern women’s basketball (17-15, 4-14 B1G) would end its season without an NCAA Tournament berth.
While this sentiment might still exist, the ’Cats, playing without star senior Maggie Lyon for the second straight game, moved one step closer to an unlikely bid with a 84-74 victory over the fifth-seeded Minnesota Golden Gophers (19-11, 11-7 B1G) in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday.
NU set the tone of the game early, ending the first quarter on a 13-3 run to give them a 21-11 advantage at the end of the period. The run was keyed by two three-pointers from Jordan Hankins, who finished the game with 14 points, a season high for the freshman.
The favored Golden Gophers were not to be run out of Indianapolis without a fight, though. Minnesota battled back in the second quarter to cut the halftime deficit to 39-35.
The second half was made up of a series of runs, with the Wildcats repeatedly building momentum before a spurt from Minnesota drew the contest close again. However, NU pulled away for good in large part due to a nearly two-minute long possession in the closing minutes of the game, made so lengthy by two Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah offensive rebounds and an Ashley Deary steal. NU was able to milk the clock and hit enough free throws, 19-for-24 on the afternoon, to eventually close Minnesota out by 10.
The victory for the Wildcats effectively avenged two hard-fought regular season losses to Minnesota, one of which saw redshirt senior Rachel Banham explode for an ungodly 60 points for the Gophers. Her performance even warranted praise from Los Angeles Lakers star shooting guard Kobe Bryant, who insinuated “mamba-blood” courses through Banham’s veins.
On Wednesday, NU was able to slow the mamba-blooded Banham. She was still able to score 26 points, but was rather inefficient, shooting just 7-for-25 from the field and 3-for-14 from three-point range.
For the Wildcats, Nia Coffey and Deary both had double-doubles, with Coffey posting 25 points and 12 rebounds and the 5-feet-4-inch Deary scoring 12 points and pulling in 10 rebounds. Deary fell just one assist short of registering a triple-double.
As is often the case when the 'Cats win, Northwestern held a firm advantage on the boards, out rebounding Minnesota 53-42 in total and 19-14 on the offensive glass. Coffey, Deary and Kunaiyi-Akpanah contributed 35 rebounds alone. This was the main separating factor, as the teams were close to even in most other facets of the game.
With the victory, Northwestern will play at least one more game in their season - but it doesn’t get any easier from here for the ’Cats. Next up is the fourth-seeded Indiana Hoosiers, a squad that topped NU 91-84 in their only regular season meeting. The Wildcats, who have perhaps regained firmer ground in WNIT contention, will have to continue their inspired form Friday as they fight to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive.