Sports Journalism Blog

By Emily Kennedy | @Emily_AKennedy

Sports Capital Journalism Program

INDIANAPOLIS – “March is made for people who love basketball,” Northwestern coach Joe McKeown said. “And, you know, if you’re a basketball player, this is when you want to keep playing, and we get to play tomorrow.”

For a month and a day, the Wildcats had heard the reminders of the 60 points scored by Minnesota’s Rachel Banham in one of two victories by the Golden Gophers over Northwestern this season. But Northwestern’s defense earned the right to keep playing in the Big Ten Women’s Basketball Tournament.

A collective defensive effort limited Banham in Northwestern’s 84-74 victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Banham became the 11th player in the modern era of major-college women’s basketball to surpass 3,000 points. Her 26-point effort, on 7-of-25 shooting, gave the fifth-year senior a total of 3,008 points, 10th on the all-time list, passing Cindy Blodgett of Maine. Banham is 10 points behind Hall-of-Famer Cheryl Miller of Southern California.

Banham’s journey from suffering a torn right knee ligament in December 2014 to the No. 2 scorer in the nation this season attracted national attention. But with Minnesota’s NCAA tournament chances in doubt, when Banham was asked what her mindset was, she said, “I’m not happy.” The Gophers (19-11) have an RPI of 73.

The Wildcats (17-15) advanced to the quarterfinal round for the second consecutive year. Northwestern, the first No. 12 seed to defeat a No. 5 seed in the history of the conference tournament, will meet Indiana on Friday afternoon.

Northwestern junior forward Nia Coffey scored 25 points with 12 rebounds, four assists and three blocked shots. Coffey, who is from Minneapolis, has scored in double figures in 47 straight games, the third-longest streak in Northwestern history.

Banham made just 7 of 25 shots, including 3 of 14 from behind the 3-point line. In the third and fourth quarters, Banham made 3 of 14 shots, 1 of 8 from 3-point range. In the two regular-season victories, she had averaged 46 points against Northwestern.

Minnesota coach Marlene Stollings said, “She had to work for almost every point she got.”

McKeown said, “And if I told you we had the same strategy a couple of weeks ago, we actually did, but we didn’t execute it. Just getting to her early, trying to show a lot of people, trying to switch out on things, trap her, try to get the ball out of her hands.

“And they’re all great theories,” he went on. “But she is also capable of, you know, making those theories backfire.”

When that did not happen, the Minnesota locker room was barren except for the women that were just sitting there, some even laying there, with glazed, tearful eyes and solemn looks. “We weren’t thinking we would beat them,” said sophomore guard Carlie Wagner.

Wagner scored 18 points with five rebounds, three assists and two steals.

Not far away, in the Northwestern locker room, the energy was electric. Coffey couldn’t sit still. “I am just so excited,” she said. “I really love playing with these girls. We just had so much fun.”

Ashley Deary, a 5-foot, 4-inch junior guard, scored 12 points with 10 rebounds, nine assists and four steals. Junior guard Christen Inman scored 18 points. Freshman guard Jordan Hankins scored 14 points including 6-of-6 free throw shooting in 14 minutes.

Freshman forward Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah had 14 rebounds to lead the Wildcats, whose total of 54 tied for the second-highest in the history of the tournament.

“They had energy and rebounding,” Wagner said. “Our energy was not there.”

“If you are ever going to catch fire,” McKeown said, “this is the right time.”