By Michelle R. Martinelli
The Northwestern women’s basketball team didn’t need to do anything crazy to beat Michigan. It didn’t need a buzzer-beater or a miraculous run in the last two minutes. It just needed to hit its free throws scattered throughout the game.
Instead, the Wildcats made 9-of-15 at the line, and those six missed points were the difference between ending their last game at Welsh-Ryan Arena with a one-point win and going out with a 70-65 loss to the Wolverines on Tuesday.
Those missed shots — what Northwestern coach Joe McKeown called the team’s Achilles’ heel — dropped them to 4-13 in the Big Ten (15-14 overall) with one game remaining in the regular season.
The team missed at least one shot during each trip to the foul line until junior guard Christen Inman made both with 17 seconds left in the game, bringing the Wildcats to within four. They closed the gap further at 68-65 with four seconds left, but the Wolverines (17-11, 9-8 Big Ten) hit both their free throws on the ensuing foul to secure their 10th victory in 11 meetings with Northwestern.
“It was a hard-nosed Big Ten game — a grind game and we just couldn’t make enough plays when we had chances,” McKeown said. “We made a great comeback and put ourselves in position to win the game in the last couple minutes. We didn’t panic [but] we just couldn’t finish it out.”
Grabbing six steals, junior point guard Ashley Deary broke the 10-year-old Big Ten single-season record with 126 on the year. The previous record of 124 was held by Keisha Anderson of Wisconsin.
But Deary dismissed talk of her own achievement and deflected focus to her team’s other bright spots.
Junior forward Nia Coffey was a wall on defense, finishing with a career-high six blocks in addition to her 22 points and six rebounds. Freshman forward Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah earned her fourth double-double, adding 14 points and 10 boards.
“She definitely brings momentum and energy to the team,” Deary said about Kunaiyi-Akpanah. “The offensive rebounds that she gets are just big-time and really are deflating for the defense.”
Both teams got off to a rocky, back-and-forth start, struggling to find the rim and combining for 18 first-half turnovers. Tied at 22 with four minutes left in the first half, Wolverine forward Hallie Thome — who led her team with 22 points — hit a quick layup to give Michigan a lead it would never relinquish.
“She’s left-handed — that helps sometimes, just keeps you off balance,” McKeown said. “More than anything, she’s just really good around the basket finishing. She’s got good hands.”
Leading 30-25 at halftime, the Wolverines went on a 10-3 run in the third quarter and started to run away with the game.
Down by as many as 13 late in the third, the Wildcats clawed back with tough defense — draining Michigan’s shot clock several times — and scoring 30 points off the Wolverines’ 23 turnovers. Making one-of-two free throws, senior guard Maggie Lyon cut Michigan’s lead to 63-59 with 52 seconds left.
Although Inman and sophomore guard Lydia Rohde made both their free throws in the Wildcats’ final two trips to the line to get them to within three, they couldn’t compensate for the many missed shots throughout the game.
“It’s just sometimes a momentum thing,” Lyon said. “When shots are falling, other people’s shots fall, but when they’re not falling, it seems to be contagious.”