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With strong tournament showing, Wildcats ‘bring some life’ back to team

Text by Michelle R. Martinelli
Video by Hannah Gebresilassie

The Northwestern women’s basketball team’s performance  in the Big Ten tournament left an obvious question: Where has that team been all season?

Despite a disappointing 4-14 finish in the Big Ten regular season, the Wildcats (18-15) played like they had finally found their chemistry and became the lowest-seeded team in tournament history to advance to the semifinals, defeating No. 13-seed Wisconsin, No. 5-seed Minnesota and No. 4-seed Indiana. Against their tournament opponents, they beat only the Badgers in the regular season.

“It’s definitely a mix of anger but also heart and passion,” junior guard Christen Inman said after beating the Hoosiers 79-73 on Friday. “We really challenge ourselves and challenge each other to step up and not to go out like wimps. We knew that we didn’t play our best during the conference season, and you’re seeing what we’re capable of, what we’ve been capable of.”

Top-seeded Maryland ultimately blocked their path to the championship game with a dominating 83-62 win Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on its way to a second-consecutive Big Ten Tournament title.

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Junior guard Christen Inman shoots a jumpshot against Indiana at the Big Ten Women’s Basketball Tournament on Friday. The Wildcats defeated the Hoosiers 79-73 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. (Keshia Johnson)

But the Wildcats’ overall tournament performance was emblematic of the team they could be — the one that upset then-No. 5 Ohio State in January — and provided a glimpse of next season’s potential. Even with guard Maggie Lyon, Northwestern’s only senior starter, sidelined for the tournament with an undisclosed lower-body injury, the team excelled.

“It really helped bring some life back in our team and really showed us that we’re not down and out,” junior point guard Ashley Deary said after losing to the Terrapins. “We still have some fight in us, [and] it gave us a really positive outlook on next year.”

The Northwestern Wildcats made history in the Big Ten Women’s Basketball tournament as the lowest seeded team to advance to the semifinals. (Hannah Gebresilassie/MEDILL)

Hot off the bench

Averaging just 1.5 points going into the tournament, junior center Allie Tuttle netted a career-high 10 points and shot 5-for-5 from the floor in her 21 minutes against Maryland.

Additionally, freshman guard Amber Jamison hit the go-ahead jumper in overtime against Wisconsin in the first game and had a dominating block with four seconds left to help secure the win. Then Thursday against Minnesota, freshman guard Jordan Hankins scored a career-high 14 points and made two key 3-pointers in each of the Wildcats’ three victories.

Coach Joe McKeown described his team as “dangerous” as the bench players develop their roles, and he said the Wildcats wouldn’t have made it past the Badgers in the first round if not for Jamison’s basket with 55 seconds left in overtime.

“I’m just so happy with the underclassmen,” junior forward Nia Coffey said. “They really stepped up when the time was right, and that’s all that matters.”

Coffey makes history

In each of Northwestern’s tournament games, Coffey was the driving force behind the team. When everyone else seemed plagued with fatigue by the fourth game in as many days, she shot 50 percent from the field and scored a career-high 31 of the team’s 62 points against Maryland.

Finishing the weekend with 100 points in four games, Coffey set a new single-tournament record, passing Buckeye Peggy Evans’ 96-point record in the 1995 Big Ten tournament.

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Junior forward Nia Coffey goes in for a layup against Indiana at the Big Ten Women’s Basketball Tournament. The Wildcats defeated the Hoosiers 79-73 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. (Keshia Johnson)

“This whole tournament, she’s just been letting the game come to her a little bit,” McKeown said after Coffey’s 26-point performance against Indiana. “She’s being aggressive, but she’s not taking shots that are out of the flow of what we’re doing.”

Phillips’ two cents

Showing his confidence in the Wildcats, Northwestern Athletics Director Jim Phillips said he packed for the whole weekend in Indianapolis because with the parity of Big Ten women’s basketball, especially in the tournament, anything was possible.

“We’re really proud of our young women [because] it’s been a tough year,” Phillips said after the 84-74 win over the Golden Gophers on Thursday. “We’ve had injuries and we’ve been so close in so many games, so the last two days have just been exceptional to watch because it’s been a complete team effort.”

Photo at top: Junior point guard Ashley Deary shoots a 3-pointer at the beginning of the fourth quarter against Minnesota. The No. 12-seed Wildcats upset the No. 5-seed Golden Gophers 84-74 on Thursday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. (Michelle R. Martinelli/MEDILL)