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After grabbing a rebound late in the first quarter, Veronica Burton dashed down the court and set the tone for what Michigan should expect the rest of the game.
With a defender on her left, Burton moved past a Wolverines defender and made her turn. The junior guard dribbled the ball behind her back — making the defender turn again — and flipped up a shot over her shoulder as another defender closed out. The ball glanced off the glass and into the basket.
Burton could do no wrong Thursday, making highlight plays and carrying fifth-seeded Northwestern (15-7) to a 65-49 victory over No. 4 seed Michigan (14-5) in the Big Ten Tournament. She finished with 25 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and three steals.
The win was particularly sweet for the Wildcats, who had lost three straight to the Wolverines dating to last season as a No. 2 seed in the conference tournament.
“We owed them three, two from this year and one from last year,” Burton said. “We knew that coming in and we wanted them to feel the same thing that we felt. So we were excited, we were motivated, we were ready to play.”
It was clear coming into Thursday’s matchup that Northwestern’s plan defensively was to limit the production of Naz Hillmon. In the team’s previous two matchups, Hillmon scored 45 points.
From the first possession of the game, Northwestern’s defense swarmed Hillmon. Early on, it was effective and Hillmon hit one of her first three shots.
But quickly the Wildcats frontcourt got into foul trouble and Hillmon was able to take advantage.
Junior Courtney Shaw picked up her second foul with 3 minutes, 20 seconds remaining in the first quarter. Freshman forward Paige Mott picked up her second foul just over a minute later and fouled for a third time late in the second quarter. In the span of a minute starting at the 1:24 mark of the second half, freshman Anna Morris picked up three to put herself in foul trouble.
Hillmon showed why she was the Big Ten Player of the Year — she scored 17 points in the first half on 6-of-10 shooting. Fortunately for Northwestern, Burton kept up with Hillmon’s scoring.
In the first half, Northwestern shot 30% from the field and, in the second quarter in particular, there seemed to be a lid on the basket. But Burton’s steady scoring kept the Wildcats in the game. She scored eight points, hitting a 3-pointer and shooting five free throws.
At halftime, Northwestern coach Joe McKeown said he felt the Wildcats had outplayed Michigan but the scoreboard didn’t show it. His halftime message was simple — stay poised and play lockdown defense that will lead to offense.
That’s exactly what happened in the second half. After combining for eight fouls in the first half, the trio of Morris, Mott and Shaw only had two in the second half and limited Hillmon’s production.
Hillmon finished with 26 points and 12 rebounds but scored only nine points in the second half. As a team, the Wolverines scored just 19 in the half.
“All three of them did a really good job against one of the best front lines in the Big Ten,” McKeown said. “(Anna Morris) helped us, Paige Mott started to just be physical, got some big rebounds for us and Courtney Shaw can change a game.”
The Wildcats defense led to productive offense on the other end. Northwestern shot 46.9% from the field and seven players scored during the final two quarters. Burton and Lindsey Pulliam combined for 19 in the second half and 43 in the game.
Northwestern is in the Big Ten semifinals for the first time since 2016. McKeown said this year’s team is motivated by a chance to prove what they are capable of in the postseason after not getting the chance to last year.
They’ll have a chance to do that against Maryland — the Big Ten regular-season champions — whom the Wildcats lost to by 12 on Feb. 28.
“There’s some carry-over right now with this team,” McKeown said. “They want to prove that they belong amongt the elite in college basketball and get a chance to play deep into the NCAA Tournament besides the conference tournament.”