Evanston, IL -- Coming off of two disappointing losses to Purdue and Michigan State, tonight was Northwestern's chance to pull off the seemingly impossible. They were tasked with taking down the Big Ten Conference's Goliath 5th ranked, Ohio State Buckeyes.
Though the turnout was much to be desired, the energy in the arena was buzzing, and everyone knew just how important this game was for the Wildcats. From the tip won by Northwestern, to the halftime buzzer, the crowd was nothing but impressive.
Northwestern, known for their ‘Big 4,' consisting of Nia Coffey, Ashley Deary, Maggie Lyon and Christen Inman, had their work cut out for them. Factors like foul trouble, low shooting percentages, and overall uncharacteristic play keep Northwestern out of the coveted W column in their last two outings.
Though the performance of Northwestern's famous quartet may have been flawed in their previous two games, they didn't seem nervous or bogged down by pressure.
Instead, tonight the team's perspective seemed to have shifted. Rather than living and dying by the ‘Big 4' they called upon the team in it's entirety to chip away at the OSU armor.
Head Coach Joe McKeown experimented with various lineups, ultimately drawing a combined 10 points out of his bench, along with immeasurable energy and overall solid play. With the added confidence in their bench, all five starters closed the half in double figures, lead by lights out shooter Maggie Lyon. Lyon tallied 20 points, bucketing 4 of 5 from behind the arc.
"We rotated the ball really well tonight," Lyon stated. "We were focusing on reversing the ball and not taking the quickest shot but the best shot. I got some good open looks, in the beginning, I knocked a few down, and it raised my confidence for the rest of the game."
As the first half came to a close, the crowd was buzzing, the Wildcats were in high spirits, and the question became, will Big Ten superstar, Kelsey Mitchell, dig her Buckeyes out of a deep 18 point hole?
When you hear about Kelsey Mitchell, you hear about the young Ohio State sophomore who reached 1,000 collegiate points in a mere 41 games.
You hear about the lights out shooter, who can effortlessly tally 42 points in a single night.
You hear about the Big Ten Freshman of the Year and Big Ten Co-Player of the Year, before entering her sophomore season.
You hear all of those things, and then you see her play live -- and the reality of Kelsey Mitchell lives up to all of the hype. Her handles along with her picture perfect shot and basketball IQ, are eerily reminiscent of a young Cappie Pondexter. If Northwestern wanted to walk away with what could be the most exciting win of the Big Ten season thus far, it was going to be up to them to weather Hurricane Mitchell, as well as outlast the clock.
"She is a great player, so are a lot of the players on Ohio State. Not sensationalizing her and playing our defense and communicating, we wanted to protect the paint and not give her easy looks," Lyon in her post game interview speaking about Kelsey Mitchell.
Right away as the second half commenced, Ohio State started to chip away at the Northwestern lead, and by the end of the third quarter they were within six points. The positive energy from the crowd began to take on a small hint of anxiety, and with 7:46 to go in the forth quarter, they were silenced, as the team's leading scorer Nia Coffey was taken out of the game due to injury.
The Buckeyes were nipping at the Wildcats heels, they were beginning to regain the confidence they needed to remain undefeated, and Northwestern was without their most prolific scorer.
"When Nia went down, she has such a great presence on the court. I think Inman and Lyon kept everybody on the court with them in a good position. Lyon and Inman made a couple of huge baskets," Coach McKeown said when asked about the mentality on the court after Coffey's injury.
As all games do that come down to the wire, this game was won with a level head and made free-throws. A point of emphasis for the Wildcats, who round out the bottom of the Big Ten in free-throw percentage.
Stepping up in all areas they needed to, the Wildcats pulled off the insurmountable and beat their first top 10 team since Penn State in 1996. After the game, Head Coach Joe McKeown said, "Our players responded to the challenge that we put out there after last week."
Who knows, this could be the fuel that Northwestern needs to make a run for the conference title. If anything, this was a huge boost for them, as they won 86-82.