It hasn’t been that long since members of the Northwestern sports media were wondering if the Wildcats would make it out of their Big Ten Tournament first round match with Wisconsin on Wednesday.
Now, the 'Cats are moving on to the Tournament semifinals after winning three games in a row in Indianapolis.
The 12th-seeded Northwestern Wildcats (18-15, 7-14 Big Ten) continued their improbable run in the Big Ten Tournament Friday, upsetting the fourth-seeded Indiana Hoosiers (20-11, 12-7 Big Ten) in the Tournament quarterfinals 79-73. Northwestern is the first 12-seed to advance to the semifinals in Tournament history.
Nia Coffey began her stellar game almost immediately, tallying the game’s opening points 11 seconds in. Indiana controlled the tempo for much of the first frame, eventually jumping out to a five-point lead, its largest lead of the match, on a three-pointer by Jess Walter with 3:21 left in the period. The ‘Cats, however, went on a 9-4 run to end the quarter with a 21-18 lead, punctuated by a Jordan Hankins triple with 23 seconds on the clock.
The second quarter was even closer than the first: neither team led by more than three, and the score was levelled five times. Fittingly, the teams headed into halftime level at 35.
After Buss hit a free throw to open the second half, Northwestern went on a 17-8 run to open up a 52-44 lead, its largest lead to that point of the game, with under two minutes to play in the third quarter. Indiana fought back down the stretch, as Amanda Cahill buried a highly questionable layup (since it appeared there was no time left on the clock) to cut Northwestern’s lead to 54-51 after three quarters.
Christen Inman got the ‘Cats' fourth quarter started 18 seconds in with a layup after an Ashley Deary steal to put Northwestern up five, and the Hoosiers never got much closer. The ‘Cats led by as many as nine when Deary hit a pair of clutch free-throw with 1:09 on the clock, and even though Indiana would cut the deficit to four with 33 seconds remaining, the Hoosiers couldn’t complete the comeback. Northwestern made its free throws when it needed to, and the ‘Cats clawed past the Hoosiers and into the Big Ten Tournament semifinals.
One of the most impressive things about the Wildcats’ tourney run is that they’ve done it without Maggie Lyon, their senior captain, three-point machine and second-leading scorer. In the absence of a player who had never before missed a game in her career, other players have had to step up. Against Wisconsin, it was Amber Jamison. Against Minnesota, it was Jordan Hankins. But against Indiana, the rest of Northwestern’s stalwarts more than made up for Lyon.
Deary scored 14 points along with 11 assists for her fifth double-double of the season. She also tacked on five rebounds and four steals. Inman continued her excellent tournament with an 18-point performance on 57 percent shooting. Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah snagged 10 boards, while Jamison and Allie Tuttle combined for 15 points.
But, as usual, the Wildcats began and ended with Nia Coffey. The consensus first team All-Big Ten player tallied 26 points, 19 in the first half, along with 11 boards for a double-double of her own. She also rejected four Hoosier shots in an overall dominant game that has come to be expected from the junior.
With wins over Wisconsin, Minnesota, and now Indiana over the last three days, Northwestern is on its first winning streak since it won its first 11 games of the season. The Wildcats didn’t win consecutive conference games this year – until this week.
But things won’t get any easier – in fact, they get much harder, with the top-seeded Maryland Terrapins on tap next for Northwestern. Northwestern lost both of its regular-season meetings with Maryland, but it also lost each regular-season game against Minnesota and Indiana. Maybe Northwestern’s March magic will carry into Saturday’s meeting with Maryland; the ‘Cats will need it if they want to keep their incredible title run alive.