In case any doubts lingered after December 28th’s victory in East Lansing, or after the Spurs defeated Lebron James and the Heat in May for that matter, Northwestern proved it Sunday: a philosophy of committee and camaraderie can unhinge a team bolstered by even the best stars.
No one broke 20 points, but all five of the Wildcat starters reached double digits as Northwestern staved off a late surge by Michigan State to secure a 77-70 victory. Despite not having a single top-10 scorer in the Big Ten, they improved to 13-2 and 3-1 in conference play. Michigan State (8-8, 0-4 BIG), owner of two of the top five scorers in the Big Ten, continued a tumble that began with Northwestern’s upset two weeks ago. They’ve now lost four in a row, as well as their spot in the AP Top 25.
The difference between Northwestern’s patchwork approach and that of Michigan State was accentuated Sunday as the Spartans held the 'Cats’ leading scorer, sophomore Nia Coffey, to two points in the first half, and just 4-of-13 from the field overall.
Coffey’s teammates stepped up quickly to fill the void. Sophomore Ashley Deary put up 18 points and 10 assists for her first career double-double, Alex Cohen went 3-of-4 from beyond the arc and junior Maggie Lyon scored 15 points. Without a single player collecting more than seven boards, Northwestern combined to outrebound MSU, 34-33 – including 11 offensive rebounds, which helped lead to 13 critical second chance points.
“It shows exactly what we’ve been working on all offseason, all season, that we're a really good unit together, and you know we’ll play some teams that have really good players, like we did today against Michigan State,” Lyon said, reflecting on the team’s ability to rebound after a late Spartan surge. “It doesn’t matter who’s having a good game or who’s not having a good game. We all come together and pick each other up.”
Off since last Sunday’s loss at Ohio State, the Wildcats looked rusty at the start. Tori Jankoska, fifth in the Big Ten with 17.8 points per game, drilled a three to give Michigan State an early lead. Three steals and three assists from Aerial Powers then promptly put Northwestern in a 14-5 hole.
But the ‘Cats came roaring back with a 20-0 run. Coach Joe McKeown’s offensive philosophy is built on balance, but for three minutes, Deary owned the court, scoring eight straight points before assisting on a go-ahead jumper from Lyon.
Even so, precision passing abounded during the onslaught and McKeown chalked up the run to his team’s ability to distribute the rock.
“I thought the best thing to do was share the basketball in that stretch," he said.
Defense has been the other cornerstone of the Wildcats' success this season. They showed it in the first half Sunday, holding the Spartans to a .338 shooting percentage from the field. Northwestern entered the afternoon with the fewest opponent points per game and lowest opponent field goal percentage allowed of any Big Ten Team.
A pair of free throws by Powers bandaged the bleeding, but the Spartans' solace was short-lived. They rallied to bring the score to 29-25, before sophomore Christen Inman converted a layup and Alex Cohen drilled a three. Northwestern controlled the game 44-29 going into the half.
However, Northwestern also led by fifteen in East Lansing during the previous matchup, only to narrowly scure a four-point victory. Once again, they struggled to keep a defensive press and an up-tempo pace throughout the game.
The Spartans shot 16-of-28 from the court in the second half, including 4-of-10 from beyond the arc. Powers hit a jumper with 3:20 left and a lead that had once reached as high as 20 was whittled down to four.
A relentless back and forth ensued. Alex Cohen tried to put the game away with a three-pointer, but a layup by Powers brought the game back to 70-65. Coffey then made a crucial error, fouling Jankoska as the Spartan attempted a three. Jankoska received three free throws and sunk all of them, making it 70-68 in favor of the 'Cats.
Inman then decided she’d seen enough. She drilled a layup, stole the ball and promptly drilled another. The Spartans landed one more shot before the Wildcats put the game away in the same manner they went ahead. Deary swung a pass to Lyon, who lofted a perfect jump shot – a three from the top of the arc, which proved to be the dagger.