By Michelle R. Martinelli
Headed in to the game against then-No. 5 Ohio State, Northwestern senior guard Maggie Lyon knew her team needed a win and knew it was a big game. But in admitting she doesn’t look at the rankings, she didn’t even realize just how big of a game it was.
It wasn’t until the postgame press conference that the Northwestern women’s basketball team was informed that its 86-82 victory over the Buckeyes was the team’s first win against a top-10 team in 20 years — almost exactly — dating back to January 12, 1996.
The news didn’t seem to faze Lyon.
“It wasn’t necessarily about the opponent,” Lyon said after the game Thursday at Welsh-Ryan Arena. “Ohio State is a great opponent, and we knew that coming in, but we knew that if we played up to our potential, we could succeed.”
Although the Wildcats topped their first highly-ranked opponent of the weekend, they have yet to win two consecutive conference matchups this season, falling 80-62 to then-No. 8 Maryland in College Park, Maryland on Sunday. Coach Joe McKeown said the team’s effort was there, but it struggled to get the right shots to fall.
But with its win over the Buckeyes, Northwestern (13-5 overall, 2-4 Big Ten) bounced back from a two-game losing streak and provided a glimpse into what kind of team it can be when everyone is in sync.
Handing Ohio State its first conference loss, the Wildcats shot 42.6 percent from the field, a big step up from their previous game where they made less than a quarter of their shots.
One play summed up Northwestern’s cohesion. About halfway through the first quarter, Lyon grabbed a defensive rebound and quickly passed it off to junior point guard Ashley Deary, who pushed it up court. In a series of perfectly orchestrated passes, Deary gave it to junior guard Christen Inman, who tossed it back up to Lyon for a seamless 3-point basket to make it 13-8 in favor of the Wildcats.
“I think we were focusing on reversing the ball and not taking the first, quickest shot but the best shot,” Lyon said. “So I think because of that, we were moving the defense more, and more openings were coming.”
In a dominating first half, junior forward Nia Coffey tossed up an easy layup to help Northwestern jump out to a 42-20 lead in the second quarter, while the Buckeyes (13-4, 5-1) played catch-up the rest of the game.
As usual, the Wildcats’ core four stepped up — as Lyon scored 24 points, Coffey had 23, Inman had 17 and Deary added 11 assists and six points — but a big star of the game turned out to be freshman forward Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah.
In her second game as a starter, Kunaiyi-Akpanah earned her first double-double with 14 points and 14 rebounds — evenly split between offense and defense. She physically dominated the offensive glass, one of the many reasons McKeown said he recruited her, noting he was impressed with her poise in either putting the ball back up or passing it out to the top.
“Once it gets going into my head that I actually need to step up for the team, I feel that’s when I do better, and that’s what I tried to do [Thursday],” Kunaiyi-Akpanah said.
With frequent Thursday-Sunday matchups, McKeown has his team looking at each weekend pair as a two-game tournament to digest the tough conference schedule. And while the Wildcats played like it was a one-and-done situation against Ohio State, they couldn’t maintain the momentum at Maryland.
Against the Terrapins (16-2, 5-1), Northwestern’s defense wasn’t communicating well. Unlike its previous game, the team couldn’t shut down the Maryland’s shooting, particularly guard Kristen Confroy, who knocked down 8-of-10 shots from beyond the arc.
It was the same, disorganized story for Northwestern’s offense, despite a late second-quarter surge to bring the Wildcats within eight. But the shrunken margin didn’t last.
The Wildcats did have a candidate for a “SportsCenter” Top 10. With less than two seconds remaining in the third quarter, Deary launched a half-court shot that hit the backboard and slipped perfectly into the basket.
However, one memorable shot didn’t make up for a flawed showing by Northwestern.
“We have to turn people over, and when we do, we have to score and that’s what we didn’t do,” McKeown told reporters in a postgame press conference. “We had a lot of shots in transition that we normally make that we struggled with tonight — good shots too.”