By Michelle R. Martinelli
The Northwestern women’s basketball team has a big problem.
It’s not the fact that the Wildcats are on the verge of dipping below .500 for the season. It’s not that they once were ranked as high as No. 12 for two weeks and are now nowhere to be seen. Not even that they’re 3-11 in the Big Ten.
The Wildcats have a depth problem, which could be making it difficult to close out winnable games. They recently lost three games in which they carried leads into the fourth quarter.
Their core four — senior guard Maggie Lyon, junior forward Nia Coffey and junior guards Ashley Deary and Christen Inman — average at least 33 minutes per game, which doesn’t leave much time for them to catch a break. Lyon and Inman get less than four minutes on the bench each game.
The next most active is freshman forward Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah — who secured a spot in the starting lineup four games into the Big Ten season — with 16.3 minutes, and nearly everyone else plays less than 10.
By comparison, No. 6 Maryland — who topped Northwestern 79-70 Sunday — has six players averaging at least 20 minutes, and 10 players averaging more than 11, allowing for more individual rest and rotation.
Getting most of their breaks during timeouts and in between quarters clearly isn’t enough for the Wildcats, especially when they’re in tight games or struggling to come back, like against the Terrapins.
“We got down and were looking for scoring from people we know that are big-time scorers like Inman or Deary or Lyon,” coach Joe McKeown said. “So it’s hard to [take] them out when you’re down.”
In large part because the team’s core four are stretched so thinly, Northwestern is on a three-game losing streak. The team dropped a heartbreaking, double-overtime game to Minnesota, a back-and-forth race against the clock with Rutgers and was constantly playing catch up against the Terrapins, when Lyon and Inman played the entire 40 minutes.
The Wildcats also have lost eight of their last nine games, but if they weren’t always playing on empty by the end, their conference record might look significantly different.
After the first three quarters in those nine games, Northwestern was winning in four, tied in two and losing in three — by four points to Ohio State and by 12 and 10 to Top 10 Maryland. With a little imagination, the team easily could be 5-4 during that stretch instead of 1-8 and at .500 for its conference schedule.
With fresh legs at the beginning of a game, the core four possess exceptional chemistry and can keep up with almost any opponent. But after 30-plus grueling minutes with the game on the line, that chemistry is outmatched by fatigue.
Northwestern has ample talent on the bench — particularly sophomore guards Maya Jonas and Lydia Rohde and freshman guard Jordan Hankins — but it’s mostly inexperienced underclassmen.
Even if the Wildcats win their last four regular-season games, they’ll be 18-12 overall, and their odds of earning a second-consecutive NCAA Tournament bid still would be slim.
So why not cut their losses now and give those bench players some high-pressure game experience that would help them next season, when the roster will be nearly the same?
As far as this year is concerned, the Wildcats’ best hope might be sneaking away with at least one more win in the regular season — likely against either Penn State on Wednesday or Nebraska at the end of the month — and then figure out how to avoid being one-and-done in the Big Ten Tournament.
It’s difficult for any coach to give up hope before the season is over. But after falling so far short of high expectations, the team’s priority now needs be the future.
Michelle R. Martinelli is the Medill beat reporter for the Northwestern women’s basketball team.