With three freshmen in the starting lineup, one would expect to see a team that looks inexperienced and prone to making mistakes.
And while Northwestern did look a little uncomfortable at times, the Wildcats (1-0) executed well enough down the stretch in their season opener to pull out a convincing 79-63 win over Illinois-Chicago at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Sunday – even with junior point guard Karly Roser out.
"I think you want them to be aggressive, and they're fearless, which you love as a coach," head coach Joe McKeown said about his three starting freshmen. "In the Big Ten, you've got to have that mentality."
McKeown added that they definitely have to work on things, like knowing when to attack the basket, but he doesn't want to change their style.
Freshman guard Nia Coffey, a McDonald's All-American in high school, stood out in particular. She scored five points in the opening minutes and finished with 19, as well as four rebounds, five blocks and three steals. Although there's understandably a lot of hype about her this season, she didn't feel she had to go out and be the star.
"There wasn't any pressure," Coffey said. "I just love playing with the girls. We play well together, so it's just great to get that win together."
Early on, the 'Cats had a tough time getting anything going on the offensive end. Through the first seven minutes of the game, they attempted just 13 shots and made four of them. With about 13 minutes to go in the first half, the 'Cats clung to a 12-10 lead.
After a quick 5-0 spurt by the 'Cats, the Flames came right back with a 7-0 run of their own. Call it rust or early-season jitters, but Northwestern didn't execute for a good chunk of the first half, expecially on defense. The Wildcats allowed UIC to shoot 40 percent from the field and get to the foul line 10 times.
"We've got to do a better job rebounding," McKeown said about the first-half woes. "We gave up offensive rebounds, and UIC was more aggressive taking the ball to the basket."
Fortunately for Northwestern, the offense picked up for the remainder of the half, and McKeown's team went into the locker room with a 40-34 lead.
Out of the break, the 'Cats looked like a completely different team on both sides of the ball. Everything was clicking, and by the 15-minute mark, they were ahead 56-40. Freshman point guard Ashley Deary, who played 28 minutes as Roser's replacement, really stepped up during the run. She made very few mistakes as the team's primary ball-handler and finished with 11 points, six assists and four steals in her debut.
McKeown was proud of Deary's performance in Roser's absence.
"She played a lot of minutes against a lot of pressure against a team that made it tough on her at times," he said. "I thought she held up pretty well."
Once faced with this heavy deficit, UIC wasn't able to get back into the game. They didn't get within single digits of catching up to the 'Cats for the rest of the game, and the Northwestern defense was a major reason why. The Flames were held to 29.4 percent shooting and made just two shots from behind the arc in the second half.
"I thought defensively, [UIC] had to work for every shot," McKeown said about the second-half performance. "We rebounded better, and we got out and ran."
Sophomores Lauren Douglas and Maggie Lyon also joined in on the fun. While Douglas was held scoreless in the first half, she wound up with 10 points, and Lyon added 13.
Northwestern's next game is against Chicago State at home Wednesday.