March S[imulation]adness: Northwestern and Baylor to battle for spot in Final Four

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Northwestern is rolling, but they haven’t faced a defense like Baylor’s this year.

It all comes down to this for the Dallas regional title. In a very intriguing Elite 8 matchup, top-seed Baylor will look to move its repeat bid as national champions one step further, while third-seed Northwestern looks to keep a magical run alive and capture the school’s first Final Four berth.

The way things are going for the ‘Cats right now, that run is beginning to look a lot less like magic and more like “talent winning out.” They rolled past a very tough two-seeded Stanford team, 68-56 in the Sweet 16, thanks to another electric performance from Abi Scheid.

The senior three-point specialist did what she does best against the Cardinal, draining six from long range to make up 18 of her 19 points. Lindsey Pulliam chipped in a standard 17-point night and Jordan Hamilton surprised off the bench with a career-high 14. In typical NU fashion, the game was tight into the fourth quarter, but very quickly out of hand once the ‘Cats turned on the jets. Three straight possessions ending in Scheid triples effectively ended the game.

Despite Scheid somehow turning it up a notch in the postseason, analyst Christy Winters-Scott says Pulliam will still be a deciding factor in whatever remains of Northwestern’s season.

“Pulliam is so tough to guard because you never know when she will pull up on a dime, and knock in a flurry of shots,” she said. “Her nickname is “pull up Pulliam” for a reason. You have to stay ready defensively.”

Meanwhile Baylor’s NaLyssa Smith posted a 21-11 line to wipe away Indiana, 76-52. If you like to judge teams on common opponents, Northwestern needed overtime to put the Hoosiers away in January.

Can the regular season Big Ten co-champions to put up more of a fight against the reigning national champions? It’s not out of the question, but it’ll be an uphill battle. The Lady Bears are allowing just 51.6 points per game, and holding opponents to 25.7% three-point shooting.

NU, for all its success this season, has often had to chip away offensively against elite defensive teams, rather than finding an edge and exploiting it. They may have the country’s best three-point shooter in Scheid, but taking away the perimeter is still a proven strategy that can make her seem very mortal.

Joe McKeown countered this as he usually does, by drawing up in-and-out plays and incorporating his versatile speedsters like Hamilton more into the offense to draw defenders away from his shooters. He’s got a pretty good defense of his own in his back pocket, too. That strategy worked against Stanford, but can it work against the mighty Lady Bears?

I say no. Northwestern is a great team, but Baylor is elite, and running downhill towards another national championship. The Wildcats will fight tooth and nail until the end, but Lady Bears will take this one, 74-59.

Winters-Scott feels similarly about the matchup: “Baylor will have a size and speed advantage over Northwestern. Lauren Cox, at 6’7”, is a tough match up in terms of skill, mobility, and efficiency offensively, and superb timing on the defensive end.”

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