Northwestern caps off 3-0 week with thrilling last-minute win over Nebraska

Northwestern’s Lindsey Pulliam shoots against Nebraska on Feb. 16. (Photo courtesy of Andy Brown)
Northwestern’s Lindsey Pulliam shoots against Nebraska on Feb. 16. (Photo courtesy of Andy Brown) /

Lindsey Pulliam missed her first 12 shots, but nailed a fadeaway jumper with 28 seconds left to win the game.

EVANSTON, ILL. — At some point, game recaps about a 22-3 team begin to write themselves. It’s not a matter of if the tide will turn and they’ll get the job done, but when.

While watching them game-by-game can sometimes be an exercise in emotional ballistics, the No. 19 Northwestern Wildcats’ reputation for consistency precedes them. So even though with three minutes left they trailed 56-51, their best player was without a made field goal, and they had shot under 30% on the game, you could still definitively say of their eventual 60-56 victory: there was somehow never a doubt.

The ‘Cats struggled mightily to make shots all day, but, to nobody’s surprise, they found a way to win yet another conference game. They are now 12-2 in the Big Ten, half a game behind Maryland for the lead. It almost doesn’t seem to matter who they match up against at this point, but on Sunday in Evanston, it was a Nebraska Cornhuskers desperate to stay on the NCAA bubble.

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Lindsey Pulliam, who had missed her first 12 field goal attempts, and 21 of her previous 22 shot attempts including the last game, sank a game-winning fadeaway jumper in the lane with 28 seconds left, and put the game on ice with two free throws when five seconds remained on the clock. Never a doubt, right?

Those free throws were set up by the usually unsung Jordan Hamilton, who drew a crucial offensive foul to foil Nebraska’s last real opportunity to tie or take the lead. Just a couple minutes before, Hamilton (10 points and four assists in a season-high 28 minutes) had tied the game at 56 with a clutch corner three.

Coach Joe McKeown acknowledged that the “grind-it-out” victory wasn’t pretty, but said he was proud of his team, and particularly proud of Pulliam (nine points, 10 rebounds), who just barely missed many good looks all afternoon. He said she hadn’t had a chance to practice since NU’s road win at Michigan on Thursday, as she was away dealing with a death in her family. Nonetheless, she wasn’t going to use anything as an excuse.

“[Pulliam] said during Nebraska’s timeout with about a minute left, ‘coach, I’m good, man, just get me the ball.’ I didn’t go to Northwestern, but I’m smart enough to get her the ball,” McKeown said. “She’s had a long week, and she’s an incredible leader for this team.”

Nebraska shot 43% on the game, and Northwestern shot just 29%. In the first half that percentage margin was even wider, and in the third quarter, the Huskers threatened to take advantage and put things out of reach by grabbing a nine-point lead. But, almost predictably, Veronica Burton injected life into the Northwestern bench and crowd, converting a steal into a transition lay-up that became an old-fashioned three-point play. It was one of three such plays on the day for her.

It’s all a broken record at this point, but Burton was the ‘Cats’ offensive sparkplug at a time when her teammates desperately needed one. She casually chipped in 21 points (2-for-4 on three-pointers, 9-for-9 from the line), three rebounds, three steals and two assists, and she did most of it with three fouls. It’s also not a surprise that she was the catalyst for a 7-0 run that gave NU its first lead since the first half early in the fourth quarter, when it again appeared that Nebraska was poised to step on NU’s throat.

She said afterwards that a win like this speaks volumes about this team’s potential, and depth.

“We have so many weapons,” she said. “Seeing [Hamilton] stepping up, we all know what she can do, and she’s very talented. It’s just exciting to see different people take on that role. We all just really trust each other.”

Northwestern’s unbelievable run of victories at the wire this season has a very Team Of Destiny feel, and fans are taking notice. NU’s reported attendance on Sunday was 2,172, its highest of this year’s conference season by several hundred. They’ll likely be back in full force on Wednesday night, when the ‘Cats take on Rutgers and continue their bid for a regular season conference title, and the honor of hosting NCAA Tournament games.

After a 3-0 week, the ‘Cats should expect take the court as a top 15 team. But if the pollsters don’t abide again, the way things are going, it’s not a matter of if, but when.

“Our players have captured the community a little bit,” McKeown said. “The crowd was great, it was loud. I think we’re a fun team, and a fun team to be a fan of. We’ve got great kids with great personalities.”

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