The ‘Cats wrapped up a record-setting regular season in style on Senior Day.
EVANSTON, ILL. — Northwestern is not accustomed to hosting coronations.
Yes, the women’s lacrosse team has seven national championships in the recent past to its name, the softball team routinely makes deep NCAA tournament runs and the tennis teams are no strangers to sustained success, either.
But watching a team, especially one that has dominated wire to wire, breezily wrap up a Big Ten championship at home isn’t something Northwestern fans generally have a chance to do. It’s fitting that this year’s women’s basketball team, which has laughed in the face of precedent all season, gave them that chance.
In a season that has seen them win in every way imaginable, the No. 14 Wildcats chose the easiest route against their in-state rival Illinois, running away and hiding in a predictable 75-58 win that clinched at least a share of the regular season Big Ten championship.
Saturday’s crowd was announced at 4,016 but it felt about three times bigger, and definitely louder, befitting of a coronation. From the beginning the atmosphere felt celebratory, and the home team abided, shooting 57% from three-point range in the first quarter to effectively put the game out of reach.
The usual suspects, Lindsey Pulliam and Veronica Burton, combined for 30 points, but it was Abbie Wolf and Abi Scheid who shone the brightest on Senior Day. Wolf terrorized the relatively small Illini in the paint, recording 21 points, nine rebounds and three blocks. At one point, she pulled off and-one buckets on three consecutive possessions. Each was assisted by Scheid, who finished with 10 points, seven rebounds and seven assists.
But when the final buzzer sounded, nothing on the stat sheet mattered. It was an arena-wide celebration, capped off by confetti, students rushing the court to join the team’s mosh pit, and traditional net-cutting proceedings. And “arena-wide” is apt, because for the first time this season, ushers opened access to the upper level of seats to accommodate fan overflow. When, and it’s a when at this point, the team returns to host NCAA Tournament games in March, it stands to reason those seats will be made available again.
“The stage was set, it was a really big one,” Wolf said. “The way the third [seating level] was being used tonight … I mean, it was packed. It’s going to be so special coming back for the NCAA Tournament. I kind of had to keep reminding myself that this wasn’t the last time I’d play here, we’re coming back. I’m really going to miss this place.”
Coach Joe McKeown, who has now clinched Northwestern’s second NCAA Tournament berth in his tenure, also praised the Wildcat faithful, who he said were “electric.” Electric is another apt word to describe his team, which has now shot past program records for not only conference wins, finishing 16-2, but also regular season wins, finishing 26-3.
He said that while expectations were high internally to start the year, it was his team’s thrilling 29-4 third quarter at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium on Nov. 17 that really got his attention, and proved he had something special on his hands.
“Against a team that’s going to NCAA Tournament, all of a sudden we went from a tie game to being up 25,” McKeown said. “And I was like ‘did we just do that?’ It kind of gave me a little hope that we could be that explosive at times, and we were that good defensively. That propelled us.”
Whether the ‘Cats hold this title alone depends on how No. 7 Maryland fares on Sunday afternoon in Minnesota. It seems fairly probable that Maryland will win. In that case, the ‘Cats would share the title, and be bumped to the No. 2 seed at next weekend’s Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis by virtue of tiebreakers. But, as is so often said, they don’t play the games on paper.
All of those particulars are next week’s problem. For the weekend, these Wildcats are basking in the glow that only a season of shattering expectations can create.
“It feels great,” Pulliam said. “I was talking to my parents last night about how we’ve been saying since before the season that we’d win the Big Ten. Nobody believed in us, but that didn’t matter because we believed in ourselves. It’s awesome to accomplish that.”
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