When the buzzer sounded at the end of Northwestern’s 66-57 loss against Kansas in Las Vegas, the Wildcats’ nonconference slate ended with a runner-up finish in the Duel in the Desert. And the book closed on a portion of the season that featured some of the most encouraging wins and disheartening losses NU has had in the last few years.
There was a fourth-quarter comeback at Green Bay and 26-point victory against Duke, but on the other hand there was an unpleasant 52-49 home loss to Pittsburgh and a blown 16-point lead in a road loss at DePaul. Then in Las Vegas, the Cats (7-4) followed a wire-to-wire 65-43 win against Wichita State (6-6) with a 66-57 loss to the Jayhawks (9-1).
The tournament started with a 20-0 run to open the game against the Shockers and ended with two dominant defensive minutes by the Jayhawks.
Sophomore guard Lindsey Pulliam was named to the All-Tournament team and averaged a team-high 12 points per tournament game. But down the stretch in the finale, NU’s offense suffered without senior forward Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah, who suffered a head injury and played just 14 minutes. Coach Joe McKeown countered with a lineup that featured junior forwards Bryana Hopkins and Abi Scheid at the four and the five, but as a result Kansas outrebounded the Cats 43-18 over the game.
Before the scoreless bout toward the end of the fourth quarter, NU cut an 11-point deficit down to four after Scheid and sophomore guard Jordan Hamilton scored 8 points in just over six minutes. But after that, Hopkins and Hamilton missed midrange jumpers that could have turned the result around.
The titanic struggle was a marked difference from NU’s debut in the Sin City. In the first quarter against Wichita State, that Cats outscored the Shockers 29-8 and tallied 12 points off turnovers, five made 3-point shots and four easy layups. These were the highs McKeown said he expected to see in a loaded nonconference schedule, and then Thursday came the lows he said he expected to see as well.
“We are going to have some tough nights where the ball doesn’t go in,” McKeown said before the season started when asked what he wanted to get from his nonconference schedule. “But that’s what you want. You want to use that nonconference, if you are playing that type of schedule, to get better for the Big Ten.”
While the fourth quarter against the Jayhawks was one of the nights McKeown would likely rather forget, he has been starting three underclassmen so far, and doing so against three ranked teams and four more from power conferences. On top of that, only three players have played in all 11 contests this season, in addition to Kunaiyi-Akpanah missing time down the stretch Thursday.
NU has eight days off before starting Big Ten play next Friday at Rutgers, and now the Cats are entering what McKeown called the “second third” of the season.
“By the time we get to Christmas or into the conference we will have seen a lot of great players, a lot of different defenses, a lot of styles of play, which I wanted,” McKeown said before the season. “Hopefully that makes you ready.”
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