By Tristan Tucker
First-year guard Caroline Lau burst onto the scene for Northwestern University’s women’s basketball team, emphasized by her career outing against Chicago State on Jan. 25, and never looked back.
Lau set career highs in points, field goals, free throws, rebounds, assists and blocks in the 87-64 win. Then, in an improbable comeback win against Wisconsin on Jan. 29, Lau hit the biggest shot of her career to give Northwestern a fourth-quarter lead and its first winning streak since mid-December.
“It felt good,” Lau said of her second career start. “Mostly just glad we got the win.”
A former four-star recruit from Westport, Connecticut, Lau rounded into form as the Wildcats continued through Big Ten play and became a staple of the rotation. Though she averaged a modest 5.9 points per game, ranking fifth on the team, Lau set a career high in every statistic after the new year.
After the new year, Lau averaged 7.7 points, 2.8 assists and 3.4 rebounds in 25 minutes played per game while. Before Jan. 1, Lau averaged 2.8 points and shot 31.3% from deep in 14.6 minutes. Slowly but surely, Lau is earning the trust of head coach Joe McKeown.
“Her confidence level,” McKeown said in terms of what stands out about Lau’s recent play. “She’s a gym rat. If I told you this, you’d say show me the film — she hit 12 half-court shots … just messing around, she hit 12. And I’m like, maybe we should run a play just for that.”
Lau’s intensity popped off the page immediately in the game against Chicago State, scoring or assisting on Northwestern’s first six points.
While Northwestern went on to blow Chicago State out, the Cougars, a team that had a 2% chance to win the game according to ESPN, actually came within two points of the Wildcats in the third quarter. Lau sparked Northwestern to a huge second half, scoring 10 points after Chicago State began to close in and helping ensure a blowout.
“She just has that competitiveness that I don’t know that you can teach,” McKeown said. “She brought it with her. I think she’s done a great job of trying to be a great teammate.”
First and foremost, Lau displayed an elite court vision, getting the ball inside for some easy scores. When bringing the ball up the court, Lau scans the field for entry passes to the paint, which leads to easy baskets such as this one.
It’s an easy pass, but it’s the kind Northwestern sorely missed before Lau’s emergence. Lau is third on the team in total assists, five assists behind graduate guard Sydney Wood and 25 behind senior guard Kayla Rainey. However, Lau being 25 assists off the team lead as a first-year while playing 143 fewer minutes is impressive and winning attention.
Lau also used her vision to scout mismatches, such as this one, which led to a score.
Lau hit her first six shots, including three 3-pointers, before missing a few shots after the game’s result was no longer in doubt. Lau’s seasonal 36.2% clip leads the team in 3-point percentage, and in the Chicago State game, she showcased a smooth shot form.
On top of all of that, Lau hustled. For a team that struggled out to a 0-9 record in the conference before beating Wisconsin, Lau’s ability to smartly reset plays, put herself on the line for offensive boards and make solid on-ball defensive reads are invaluable.
“She pushes the ball really hard,” McKeown said. “She’s starting to play a lot more under control with the ball in transition. She’s finishing around the rim, whereas I think earlier in the year that was a challenge. She’s making free throws, she’s making 3s. I think she’s just feeling, ‘OK, I belong’ and hey, her talent is coming out.”
Despite the disappointing team record, Lau’s contributions to the program as a budding star appear to be just starting.
“I feel like it just comes with experience,” Lau said. “(I’m) just figuring things out, figuring out how to play with everybody. It’s definitely a confidence thing.”