Northwestern runs into a buzzsaw, falling 85-52 to Maryland in the Big Ten Tournament semifinal

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Andrew Golden, Chicago Tribune
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Northwestern’s formula for success in its first two games of the Big Ten Tournament was turning suffocating defense into instant offense. But the Wildcats got a taste of their own medicine in Friday’s 85-52 loss to Maryland.

The Terrapins rode a dominant second-quarter performance to victory. By halftime, Northwestern trailed to 49-24 — the Wildcats’ lowest first-half score in any game this season. The second half was more of the same — Northwestern just couldn’t get the lid off of the basket and shot 29% from the field.

“We were in it for a while, we just let them kinda run with it,” junior guard Veronica Burton said. “We let them get momentum and we never stopped. We were turning the ball over on offense and not playing the defense that we can… We take pride in our defense and I don’t really think we did a great job of that today.”

Maryland entered the Big Ten Tournament virtually unscathed against conference opponents. They were 22-2 and had won 17 of 18 Big Ten games — their lone loss against Ohio State in late January.

On Feb. 28, Maryland beat Northwestern 62-50 in their lowest-scoring performance of the year. Maryland coach Brenda Frese said the team was disappointed with their offense even in the win. They came out on a mission to execute at a higher level — and they did.

From the opening tip, the Terrapins asserted their dominance offensively. Quickly, they were out to a 7-0 lead after hitting three of their first four shots. But Northwestern responded to keep themselves at arm’s length throughout the first quarter, and was only down by seven heading into the second.

Coach Joe McKeown said he felt his team was in a good position in the second quarter, when they cut the lead to 27-22 and Maryland’s leading scorer Ashley Owusu was on the bench with her second foul. But then Northwestern ran into a buzzsaw — Maryland went on a 22-2 run in the final seven minutes of the first half.

“Right before that, we were in a good position, we were getting good shots, we were defending,” McKeown said. “You just give them credit, they’re a great team and, you know, for us three games in three days… I just felt like we ran out of gas today.”

Offensively, the Wildcats shot 29% from the field for the game and 23% from the 3-point line. Only two Northwestern players shot at least 50% from the field. Lindsey Pulliam, who came into Friday five points away from 2,000 career points, scored one point on 0-for-12 shooting. Burton and Jordan Hamilton combined for 24 of the team’s 52 points.

Burton said the team’s struggles were a result of not executing the way they planned coming in.

“Each game I guess takes a toll on you, but at the end of the day, this is more mental than physical,” Berton said. “It definitely caught up to us but, again, everyone’s tired. It’s March now so gotta dig in.”

With a semifinal exit, the Wildcats will now prepare for a trip to the NCAA Tournament in San Antonio. McKeown said it will be good for his team to get some rest before playing again. It will be tough to get past the frustration of this game — McKeown said that’s natural with the competitive nature of this team — but they will move ahead because they have loftiergoals.

McKeown has made his share of NCAA Tournament appearances — he’s coached in 17 — but no one on the team’s current roster has ever experienced March Madness. This year’s team has been streaky offensively, but McKeown said he’ll continue to have faith.

“When we get into the NCAA Tournament, you just gotta be really crisp but you’re your turnover margins, you got to be really sharp,” McKeown said. “The message this week will be okay now, let’s go and shoot the ball with some confidence. Don’t worry if you miss, but just make sure we’re getting great shots every time down.”