Turnovers holding Wildcats back in Big Ten play

By Michelle R. Martinelli

Joe McKeown threw both hands in the air. The Northwestern women’s basketball coach was exasperated after watching his team turn the ball over on its last possession of the third quarter at Michigan State on Sunday.

To make matters worse, the Wildcats did the exact same thing just 13 seconds into the fourth quarter, on their way to 18 total turnovers during their 74-51 loss to the Spartans.

A dramatic increase in turnovers has been a major contributor to the team’s 1-3 Big Ten start. After receiving its first NCAA Tournament bid in nearly two decades last season, the team is pushing for a second consecutive appearance. However, that goal may be in jeopardy if too many turnovers continue to weigh down the Wildcats.

“All of our wounds were self-inflicted, and we’re much better than that,” McKeown said.

Junior forward Nia Coffey dribbles under the basket in the third quarter against Purdue at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Thursday. The Wildcats lost to the Boilermakers 85-71. (Michelle Martinelli/MEDILL)

In Northwestern’s first four Big Ten games, the team (12-4 overall) averaged 15 turnovers, compared with its 10.9 average in the 12 games of nonconference play. Its greatest shortcomings came on the road at Michigan State (12-3 overall, 3-1 Big Ten) and in a home-court defeat by Purdue on Thursday, turning the ball over 21 times.

After the 85-71 loss to the Boilermakers (13-2, 4-0), McKeown blamed the lost balls on the team’s poor decision making with sloppy passes, bad shots and being careless with the ball. Purdue capitalized on the Wildcats’ faults — scoring 19 points off Northwestern’s turnovers — and McKeown said he was disappointed with their execution on offense, a rarity this season.

But they experienced a similar pattern of difficulties against Michigan State, as the Spartans converted Northwestern’s 18 turnovers into 16 points.

To avoid repeating the same mistakes, senior guard Maggie Lyon said the Wildcats are employing mental conditioning techniques. In practice, it’s easy to turn the ball over and simply start again, she said, but now they are mimicking game situations, particularly when they’re divided into smaller teams to scrimmage.

“If a team turns the ball over, they have to go out, and then the next team goes on so you don’t get to keep playing,” Lyon said. “[It’s] more game-like, where if you turn the ball over something bad will happen.”

Despite its recent struggles, Northwestern still leads the Big Ten with its +8.1 turnover margin compared with its opponents. Ohio State — which the Wildcats host at 7 p.m. on Thursday at Welsh-Ryan Arena — is second in the conference with a +5.1 margin.

“[Turnovers are] definitely something we can’t let become a trend, and it’s uncharacteristic of us,” junior guard Christen Inman said. “We’ve been focusing on keeping those down throughout the year, so we’re going to bounce back.”

Photo at top: Junior guard Christen Inman (24) looks to the basket for a mid-range jump shot on a fast break, off a steal from sophomore guard Maya Jonas (35) at the end of the second quarter against Purdue on Thursday. The Wildcats lost to the Boilermakers 85-71. (Michelle Martinelli/MEDILL)