The Northwestern Wildcats faced off with the Maryland Terrapins for the second time in five days in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals on Saturday night, but were once again unable to derail the fourth-ranked team in the country, falling 74-63 at Sears Centre Arena in Hoffman Estates, Illinois.
The ‘Cats actually shot 11 percentage points higher than the Terps, but 18 total turnovers and the inability to recover loose balls in the second half doomed them, as the Terps only coughed it up eight times and corralled 21 offensive rebounds off of their 35 missed shots.
Although the loss ends NU’s aspirations of capturing a conference title, with a 23-8 overall record along with several impressive victories on its resume, the 24th-ranked ‘Cats are all but assured an at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament, which would be the program’s first appearance there since 1997. That’s right, a Northwestern basketball team will be going dancing this year. Go buy a lottery ticket.
The most recent bracketology projections have NU as a likely No. 7 seed, but at the start of the game, it looked like the ‘Cats might have a chance to improve on that standing rather drastically. Sophomore forward Nia Coffey channeled Wilt Chamberlain early on, scoring 14 of NU’s first 23 points and helping the ‘Cats grab a 23-12 lead over Maryland about midway through the first half.
But the Terps responded with an 18-6 run to give them a 30-29 lead with a minute left in the half, which they would never relinquish. The teams headed to the locker room with UMD up 36-31.
Maryland continued to pour it on after intermission, opening the half on a 19-4 extended run to stretch its lead to 18 with 14 minutes remaining. It appeared that the game was following the exact same trajectory as the last time these two teams met last Sunday at Welsh-Ryan, when Northwestern kept it close for a half but was eventually overwhelmed.
However, despite Coffey’s relative second-half absence (she scored just five of her 23 total points after halftime), the ‘Cats, led by a late resurgence from sophomore point guard Ashley Deary, cut Maryland’s lead to 58-50 with just three minutes left. But an eight-point deficit was as close as NU could cut it, as junior shooting guard Maggie Lyon and Coffey both fouled out down the stretch and Maryland made the vast majority of its free throws to ice the game away.
Northwestern will learn of its specific postseason fate at 7 p.m. on “Selection Monday,” March 16, and, assuming it makes the Big Dance, will play its first round game on either March 20 or 21.