As the second quarter came to a close, Illinois walked off the floor experiencing deja vu.
For the second straight day at the Big Ten women’s basketball tournament, Illinois was part of a matchup in which a team didn’t make a field goal for an entire quarter. But Wednesday, the Illini were on the wrong end of the drought.
The Illini went 0-for-11 from the field in the second quarter against Northwestern, scoring only two points off free throws. The Wildcats outscored them 20-2 to lead 38-8 at halftime.
It was a drastic change from Tuesday against Wisconsin, when the Illinois defense forced the Badgers to shoot 0-for-18 from the field in the first quarter as the Illini led 24-2.
The Illini attempted a comeback in the second half Wednesday, but it was too little, too late as Northwestern cruised to a 67-42 second-round victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Illinois was held in single digits for three out of the four quarters.
“We felt like we got into our offensive flow a little bit,” Illini coach Nancy Fahey said. “I know that we won the third quarter, but there was a lot more basketball that had to be played in the first and second.”
Northwestern defeated Illinois twice in the regular season — a blowout 23-point victory Jan. 21 and a tight five-point battle Feb. 24 in Champaign. But NU coach Joe McKeown had never beaten a team three times in a season since taking over the program in 2008.
The Illini came into Wednesday’s matchup with momentum after winning their last two games, including a dominant 67-42 victory over Wisconsin in which they asserted themselves defensively. But Northwestern’s blizzard defense kept Illinois at bay for most of the game.
“We came out ready to play the first quarter, and that turned into the second quarter,” McKeown said. “Our defense was tremendous and just gave us momentum. We were looking for it coming into this tournament.”
Neither team could take the lid off the basket in the first few minutes. The two combined for 20 shots in the first five minutes but made only three, and Northwestern led by just two points.
Both teams came out of the first timeout with more confidence, and the shots started to fall. The Illini’s Jada Peebles hit a pull-up jumper with 2:55 remaining in the first quarter to cut the Wildcats’ lead to 10-6 — and that was the last field goal Illinois would make until 8:01 remaining in the third quarter.
After extending its lead to 18-6 after one quarter, the Wildcats outscored Illinois 20-2 in the second quarter and every starter scored.
Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Veronica Burton got it done on both sides of the floor; she nailed two 3-pointers and added two points at the free-throw line and had three of her five steals in the second quarter. Lindsey Pulliam added six points in the second quarter, and that momentum carried her into the second half.
The Illini came out more aggressive and poised in the second half. They shot 46.7% to outscore Northwestern 25-15 in the third quarter while turning the ball over only three times.
But they still couldn’t stop Pulliam from getting into a rhythm. She scored 11 of her team’s 15 points in the third quarter to keep the Illini from getting too close. She finished with a team-high 21 points, and her last shot gave her 1,977 points to move her into third all-time in Northwestern history.
“It means a lot,” Pulliam said. “Coming into Northwestern, I knew I wanted to leave as one of the greatest to come through the program. Just to know that I’m doing things like that is really special to me, and I’ve got a lot more work to do.”
Pulliam will have to keep her hot hand going against Michigan on Thursday. The Wildcats lost to the Wolverines twice this season, including Saturday. Northwestern will have to find a way to limit Naz Hillmon, the Big Ten Player of the Year who scored 45 points combined in the first two matchups.
They also will have a chip on their shoulder knowing Michigan knocked them out of the Big Ten Tournament last year.
“Most of the players on our team were part of that game last year, so it was frustrating,” McKeown said. “Hopefully we’ll have a great game tomorrow. The game we just played Saturday, too, was a terrific game. We’ve just got to be able to play better defensively on their front lines.
“We do remember last year, and that was a tough game.”