Northwestern makes debut as a top 20 team, crushes Michigan State again

Veronica Burton tied her career highs in scoring and rebounding as the ‘Cats rolled past the Spartans.

EVANSTON, ILL. —Northwestern would have had plenty of excuses to come out flat against Michigan State on Monday night.

The ‘Cats had been off for eight days, remained arguably overlooked by AP voters at No. 19 in this week’s poll, and were facing a team they beat by nearly 30 on the road a few weeks ago. To make matters possibly shakier, coach Joe McKeown determined he was too sick to be on the sideline a few hours before tip-off. Assistant coach Kate Popovec filled in for him in the interim.

None of it mattered. The ‘Cats continued to roll through their Big Ten slate, thoroughly dominating the visiting Spartans from start to finish, 85-55. NU moved to 20-3 on the season, and 10-2 in conference, good for second behind Iowa and Maryland who sit up top at 11-2.

Michigan State gave the ‘Cats a game for all of four minutes … the first four. The Spartans led 9-4 and looked primed to at least compete to avenge their 76-48 home loss on Jan. 23. The ‘Cats had other ideas. They ripped off a casual 17-0 run, during which they made 7-of-10 attempts from the floor. Veronica Burton accounted for seven of those 17 points, and that was pretty much it.

Popovec said she was never concerned, even before the run started, in how her team would perform without McKeown in the building.

“Our girls never flinched,” she said. “We have tremendous faith in what they do, and they’re a player-led team. They compete and have bought into what we do.”

Lindsey Pulliam is always going to be the headliner on offense for these Wildcats, and she was once again, of course, scoring another near career-high 31 points on 9-of-20 shooting. Evidently, she was making good on a promise to Popovec in the pregame meal that she would score 30 and make her job easy.

But in spite of Pulliam’s achievement, the story of the night, as she has been for many conference games, was Burton.

With foes continuing to key in on three-point sharpshooter Abi Scheid, the sophomore guard has seamlessly accepted her role as the team’s secondary scorer. She tied her career-high tonight with 23 points on 9-of-13 shooting.

“I definitely am trying to be more aggressive on the offensive end, my teammates and coaches have been telling me to do that for quite some time now,” Burton said. “I’m just kind of gaining confidence on that end, and everybody has been really helpful and supportive in that way.”

What should be more worrisome for upcoming opponents, though, is that in accepting that role, Burton hasn’t sacrificed any of her abilities as a rebounder (11 tonight, another career-high, to lead the team), blocker (two tonight, to lead the team), or ball thief (just one steal tonight, but she still leads the conference).

Northwestern’s Lindsey Pulliam shoots against Michigan on Jan. 30 (photo courtesy of Andy Brown)

Uncharacteristically, Burton did not register an assist. Sydney Wood led the team in that category tonight, with five to go along with eight rebounds. With just two points, it can be easy to forget the impact she’s making on the court. The same can be said for Scheid, who scored eight but chipped in six rebounds and three assists, or center Abbie Wolf, who went for 10-8. That’s just the kind of season these ‘Cats are having — it seems like everyone on the court finds a way to stuff the stat sheet, one way or another.

The ‘Cats are now one win shy of matching their total from last year, though that total is somewhat belied by a deep WNIT run. Of course, NU’s sights are currently set much higher than 21 wins; there’s a strong chance it will shatter the single-season wins record, 24, before the end of February. Six regular season games remain. By the time things are all said and done this season, the ‘Cats may have even scratched 30.

But before they can think that far ahead, they’ll need to continue to take care of business. Their next opportunity to do so will be at Michigan on Thursday at 6 p.m. CT, followed by Nebraska back home on Sunday at 2 p.m. Popovec said McKeown should be ready to go for the team’s trip to Ann Arbor, but by the looks of things, this group is on cruise control, and making a beeline towards March.

“Looking at it, probably was the best all-around performance of the season,” Popovec said. “One of the special things about watching our team is that every game I feel like we’re improving. We haven’t peaked. Our kids are clicking on all cylinders. We trust them, they have earned their stripes, and they’ve played in tough situations. So we’ve just got to let them do what they do.”

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