Sydney Wood drives to the basket. She led the team with 17 points in what was likely her final home game. Photo by Maren Kranking / North by Northwestern

With 2:35 left on the clock Thursday night, the Northwestern Wildcats (9-19, 2-15 B1G) were within reach of their third B1G win of the season.

With the game tied at 56 against a Wisconsin (11-19, 6-12 B1G) team that the ’Cats had defeated on the road four weeks prior, and the second-largest home crowd of the season filling the arena with chants, victory was attainable. Ultimately, however, Northwestern came up short in a 64-57 loss to the Badgers.

It was a disappointing end to Northwestern’s senior night, which recognized fourth-year guards Kaylah Rainey and Laya Hartman.

Hartman, who averaged 7.6 points per game during the 2021-22 season but has sat out for much of this year, made her first start of the 2022-23 season; the game was also the first she played since Dec. 28. She gave the ’Cats an initial spark, scoring five points and grabbing four rebounds in the first six minutes.

“Feeling the energy of the crowd and just being back in action was really fulfilling for me,” Hartman said. “I was really excited.”

Rainey, always a key player for Northwestern, had five points and a career-high seven rebounds. Her defensive board converted into an and-one layup topped off a 10-1 run that brought the ’Cats within four midway through the third quarter.

“[Hartman and Rainey] have just been incredible people to be around, teammates,” head coach Joe McKeown said. “To have the opportunity to coach them is really special for me.”

McKeown also recognized graduate forward Courtney Shaw and graduate guard Sydney Wood, saying that the game was probably the last they would play at Welsh Ryan Arena.

Wood had a standout showing, recording team-highs of 17 points, five assists and four steals while also grabbing five rebounds. She went 88.9% from the free throw line, knocking down all but one of her nine attempts.

Northwestern’s quick defense kept the game close despite its struggles to finish under the basket. In the second quarter, when the ’Cats shot a bleak 14.3% from the field, Wisconsin managed to extend its lead by just one point as Northwestern hit eight free throws and grabbed 15 rebounds to Wisconsin’s 11.

Although the ’Cats trailed for over 90% of the game, and by as many as 13 points, they fought back each time, ultimately tying the game up at 56 with a driving layup from first-year guard Caroline Lau.

The next few minutes were a series of bad luck and missteps that brought Northwestern’s momentum to a screeching halt. On one Wildcat possession, a jump ball gave control back to Wisconsin; on another, an offensive foul sent possession to the Badgers once again. Down two with just over 30 seconds left, second-year forward Caleigh Walsh was knocked to the floor as her layup bounced out and no foul was called.

Wisconsin widened the gap to four points with an easy layup on their next possession, then hit four free throws before the game came to a rather anticlimactic close. Northwestern’s final trip up the court was precisely that; Rainey stumbled, turning the ball over into Badger hands, and Wisconsin dribbled out the final nine seconds.

“I wish we could have finished it, you know, it was frustrating,” McKeown said. “I thought we had them at times on their heels, and then we just, we tipped it, we couldn’t get it, or we turned them over and couldn’t come down and score.”

Northwestern played their final regular-season game this Sunday at Nebraska (16-13, 8-10 B1G) – an 80-64 loss – and now turns to the B1G tournament in Minneapolis this week. The number 14 seed, the ’Cats will play in the first round against the 11th seed, Rutgers (11-19, 5-13).

No matter what happens next, the game will be in reach; Northwestern just needs to stretch a little further to get there.

Thumbnail photo by Maren Kranking / North by Northwestern