Northwestern rolls through Rutgers, keeps pace at top of the Big Ten

Northwestern’s Lindsey Pulliam shoots against Rutgers on Feb. 19. Image courtesy of Andy Brown.
Northwestern’s Lindsey Pulliam shoots against Rutgers on Feb. 19. Image courtesy of Andy Brown. /

Lindsey Pulliam and Veronica Burton combined for 50 points as the ‘Cats continued their run of dominance

EVANSTON, ILL. — It’s well known that when wolves hunt as a group, they circle their prey before devouring it. They slowly probe the target to find its weakness, then make their move when they’ve found it.

Keeping this imagery in mind, through one quarter of play on Wednesday night, Northwestern led Rutgers 16-14. Ten minutes later, Northwestern led Rutgers 37-22.

Frankly, the analogy doesn’t totally work seeing as they are the Northwestern Wildcats, and while their aptly named center Abbie Wolf had a great night, she wasn’t the star of show. There just aren’t a whole lot of fresh ways left to describe Northwestern’s dominance this season.

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On Wednesday night, the No. 18 ‘Cats did just that: dominate. They beat a Rutgers team solidly in the projected NCAA Tournament field by a score of 82-65, and it wasn’t nearly that close. NU led 60-30 before letting its foot off the gas a bit. Regardless, the ‘Cats are now 23-3, and with No. 7 Maryland doing similar damage to Wisconsin on the same night, they remained just a half game behind the Terps at 13-2 in the Big Ten.

Coming off one of their worst shooting performances of the season (29%) in Sunday’s nailbiter win over Nebraska, the ‘Cats completely flipped the script, shooting (are you sitting down?) 59% as a team, including 50% from three-point range (10-for-20). Both of those numbers were much higher prior to garbage time.

Coach Joe McKeown said he was pleased to see many of the same looks that had rimmed out so often on Sunday find the bottom of the net, especially against a stout defensive team like Rutgers.

“They’re special, every time you challenge them, they respond,” McKeown said. “I thought Nebraska made life really hard for us, but tonight from the tip we were ready to play. These guys are resilient. Any adversity that comes at them, they seize and make it go their way. I’m really proud of them.”

Lindsey Pulliam catapulted herself out of her two-game funk with a 27-point (10-for-17), five assist and seven rebound performance. Veronica Burton was automatic, stuffing the stat sheet per usual with 23 points (8-for-9), four rebounds, nine assists, and five steals.

Thanks in large part to these two, NU trailed for just 20 seconds, and became the first team all season to crack 80 points against Rutgers. McKeown acknowledged that having not just one, but now two dynamic scorers tends to make life difficult for whoever stands in Northwestern’s path on any given day.

“Everybody knows who Lindsey is and everybody’s trying to stop her, but Veronica Burton may be the most underrated player in the Big Ten, and maybe in all of college basketball,” he said. “She’s always about, ‘what do we need to do to win this game? Do I need to score, do I need to run the team, do I need to steal?’ The two of them combined, they’re fun to coach.”

The Wildcats haven’t become one of the top teams in the country this season by physically overpowering opponents, but by overwhelming them in death-by-one-thousand-cuts fashion. They beat you by turning suffocating defense into quick offense, punctuated by crisp passes and constant movement away from the ball.

When their shots are falling, they casually and methodically put games out of reach, whenever they’re ready to. You may think you’re hanging around, but the situation is steeped in dramatic irony — the crowd already knows your fate, and can do nothing but watch. Before you know it, you’re down 15, and the wolves have closed in.

Speaking of wolves, Abbie was 5-for-5 from the field with 14 points, eight rebounds and four blocks. But that she was able to quietly put together such an efficient night speaks to the depth and star power of this team, whose ceiling seems to get higher with each passing week.

Use whatever analogies you want to describe it, but the this team is just very good, and very confident.

“[We’re the] best backcourt in the Big Ten,” Pulliam said, sitting next to Burton and smiling ear to ear. “Shoot, [best] in the country, right here.”

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