EVANSTON – Moments like this are the stuff of dreams for these players, this program, and the coach who has been building to this moment for over a decade.
Joe McKeown’s had success since taking over the Northwestern women’s basketball program in 2008 and has even made an NCAA Tournament, but nothing quite like what happened on Saturday.
The coach was front and center to accept the Wildcats’ first Big Ten championship in women’s basketball since the 1989-1990 season on the floor at Welsh-Ryan Arena. The cheers came from the fans both in the stands and on the hardwood with the team, as confetti flew from the ceiling during a landmark moment in program history.
Many expected this moment to take place the past few days since Northwestern needed just a win to clinch a share of the title and were facing a struggling Illinois team in their regular season finale. The Wildcats delivered, comfortably leading the Illini for the better part of 40 minutes in a 75-58 victory that gives them a 16-2 record in the Big Ten.
That’s tied for the best record in the league with Maryland, and a loss by the Terrapins on Sunday in Minnesota would give them the title outright. Their 26th victory is now the most in the history of Northwestern women’s basketball in a single season.
While the win on Saturday was expected, such a season was not, especially for a group that didn’t even make it to the NCAA Tournament the year before. Most of McKeown’s team on the floor was around for a run to the WNIT Championship game against Arizona in 2019.
Most don’t take that tournament as seriously as they would as the “Big Dance,” but the Wildcats did, and it built a desire to improve, which carried them to the moment that happened on Saturday.
“When they came back this summer and in the fall, they wanted to build off that,” said McKeown of the team after their run in the WNIT last March. “It kinda left a chip on their shoulder.”
Their performance during the season, from the opener to their win over the Illini, would certainly back that up. They lost just one non-conference game to then No. 16 DePaul and early in the Big Ten schedule beat Maryland by 23 points at home.
They’d lose just twice during the conference season and won their final nine games of the campaign, assuring themselves of an NCAA Tournament spot instead of that WNIT bid of a year ago.
“We kinda left that game saying we don’t want to be here again,” said senior forward Abi Sheid. “So we kinda put our mindset to making the NCAA Tournament and just working towards that.”
Their efforts so far have been good enough that they may earn the shot to host the first two rounds of the tournament at Welsh-Ryan Arena. That’s what the latest ESPN Bracketology has for Northwestern, who is projected to be a No. 2 seed.
It’s a far cry from a year ago, and for most of the last three decades for the Northwestern women’s basketball program. Their efforts made it so, earning them an afternoon to remember in Evanston.