Michigan sends Northwestern home in Big Ten quarterfinals

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) /

Michigan frustrated Lindsey Pulliam and Abi Scheid all night on its way to a semifinals berth.

INDIANAPOLIS—As is so often said this time of year, it is very difficult to beat a basketball team three times in one season. It is even harder if that basketball team happens to be pretty good.

Such was the scenario the No. 11 Northwestern Wildcats, the Big Ten Tournament’s second seed, faced coming into Friday night against the formidable sixth-seed Michigan Wolverines, who they had already beaten twice this season.

The ‘Cats could not pull off the trifecta. In a chippy, physical game filled with wild momentum swings, the Wolverines landed the final blow in a 67-59 quarterfinal win on Friday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Possibly more importantly, they provided a solid blueprint for Northwestern’s NCAA tournament opponent(s) two weeks from now: take away the perimeter and their best shooters, and a 26-4 team that won a share of the Big Ten regular season championship can seem quite beatable.

More from High Post Hoops

NU shot just 3-for-14 from three-point range, and Lindsey Pulliam accounted for just one of those attempts, which she missed as part of a quiet nine-point night. Abi Scheid, who led the country in three-point shooting this season, was 1-for-5 from beyond the arc, and finished with just five points.

Coach Joe McKeown chalked that up to being the nature of the beast—his team will live and die by the jumpshot. Usually, they live. Tonight, out of necessity, they had to attack the rim, and fell short.

“We’re streaky, and sometimes we’re great … Scheid’s just carried us all year making big shots,” he said. “Tonight we played against a team, just like they did, that kind of knows all your plays, kind of plays you a certain way. So it’ll be good to play outside the league a little bit, too. But Scheid, man, what a year. I’m really proud of her. She’s going to light somebody up in March.”

Of course, those two have been neutralized before. In those cases, the ‘Cats can usually rely on Veronica Burton to pick up the slack. She did her part, going 6-for-12 from the field with 15 points and seven assists. But she was still a bit off balance for much of the night, unable to play her blistering style of defense at all times thanks to early foul trouble that forced her to the bench for much of the first half, pushing backup guard Jordan Hamilton into the spotlight.

Hamilton has mostly been limited to bench weapon status this year, but when pressed into action, she delivered. The junior put up 14 points on 5-for-11 shooting, along with two assists, and was one of NU’s only bright spots on an otherwise difficult night to stomach.

“[Being aggressive] is just something that my teammates and my coaches have been trying to get me to do,” Hamilton said. “I’ve kind of had not the best year. I know that myself. They have so much courage and confidence in me, and I feel like it’s finally clicked, and I just hope that that also carries over into the NCAA Tournament.”

Hamilton’s resurgence kept NU alive just long enough to keep Michigan from slamming the door in the fourth quarter, when the Wolverines opened up eight and nine-point leads. The ‘Cats, who finally looked like themselves, stormed back both times, cutting the deficit to two, 59-57, with two minutes remaining with an 8-1 run.

But the night didn’t belong to them, it belonged to Naz Hillmon. The all-conference forward scored her 20th point of the night via a dagger lay-up with a minute remaining, and that was that.

NU will likely still host at least an opening round NCAA Tournament game in a couple weeks, but it can’t afford to let its best shooters get lost in the shuffle again. The best the ‘Cats can hope for is that McKeown and company find a way to keep their next opponent from executing Michigan’s blueprint for success. If they do, what has been a magical season could quickly come to a screeching halt.

“For us, there’s a lot of basketball left hopefully,” McKeown said. “To play in the NCAA Tournament coming up, to be Big Ten Conference champions in the regular season, ranked in the top 20, [that’s] a lot of great things. Whenever we play next, you’ll see a great team out there. I have no doubt about that.”

Love our 24/7 women’s basketball coverage? Join our Patreon now and support this work, while getting extra goodies and subscriber-only content for yourself.