Indiana women’s basketball rebounded – figuratively and literally – Thursday night, beating Northwestern 69-58 after a tough 55-72 loss to Nebraska on Monday. With the win, Indiana remains on top of the Big Ten with just two conference losses, and extends its home win streak in conference play to seven games.
Senior forward Aleksa Gulbe recorded her third double-double of the season, leading Indiana with 20 points and 12 rebounds. She shot 7-12 from field goal range, with many of those scoring opportunities coming from junior forward Mackenzie Holmes’ return.
Holmes, who hadn’t played since Jan. 5 due to a knee injury, returned to the court — and starting lineup — Thursday night to tumultous cheers and applause from her teammates and Hoosier fans alike. Holmes played for a total of 23 minutes and put up 6 points and six rebounds, and she was consistently strongly guarded by Northwestern’s defense.
Holmes’ presence allowed Gulbe to be more versatile in her shots and change up her strategy against the unsuspecting Wildcats.
“Leks is a funny kid in that she’s so versatile,” head coach Teri Moren said about Gulbe. “Obviously Mack draws a lot of attention, and she should. So that’s the nice thing about having Mackenzie back, is that it does open up things for Leks.”
While Indiana held the lead for over 34 minutes of the game, the game was close until the end of the third quarter. With 1:34 left in the third quarter, Gulbe took a 3-point shot from beyond the arc, sunk it and drew the foul.
That four-point play would be the momentum-changer for Indiana, propelling the team to lead by double-digits for the final four minutes of the game.
“At that point, we’d missed a couple of shots and things weren’t really going our way,” Gulbe said. “I think that was huge. (Nicole Cardaño-Hillary) passed me the ball, she found me open and (I) just made the play. I think that started our run.”
The only other player to reach 20 points was Northwestern senior guard Veronica Burton, who shot 9-17. Moren and Cardaño-Hillary said Burton forced Indiana’s defense to adjust going into the second half.
“Our plan was that we didn’t want to allow her to control the game defensively by us giving her the ball,” Moren said. “She’s obviously the head of (Northwestern’s) snake.”
The Hoosiers had nine turnovers entering halftime, many of which were caused by Burton’s scrappy defending. In the second half, the Hoosiers only gave up three turnovers.
“In the second half, coach definitely reminded us that we need to be more careful with our passes and more aware that she does have quick hands,” Cardaño-Hillary said.
At the start of the second half, Indiana led 32-28. Northwestern came out of the halftime break with more energy and momentum, which persisted throughout the third quarter, until Gulbe got in a rhythm to eventually score 10 points in the quarter. Indiana’s defense also stepped up in the second half, so even when the team found itself in a two-minute scoring drought, Northwestern was unable to take the lead.
“(In the) second half we were really good defensively, after we got to them at halftime and made some adjustments,” Moren said. “I liked how even though (Northwestern) got back into the game and tied it up, Leks comes down and hits that big shot.”
Fouls were prominent in the game, as Northwestern finished with 22 as a team and had three players commit four personal fouls each. Indiana finished with just 11 fouls, but Cardaño-Hillary had four herself. The discrepancy in foul totals wasn't a negative for Moren.
“We can talk about the players and performances and so forth, but the one stat that pops off the page for us is (Northwestern) only got to the free throw line five times,” Moren said. “That was an important key going into this contest, keeping them off the free throw line and not allowing them to get any production from a free shot.”
The Hoosiers shot 17-19 from the free throw line. The Wildcats shot 2-5.
Indiana, which only has three more games in its regular season schedule, is set to face No. 22 Iowa in back-to-back games on Saturday and Monday and No. 13 Maryland on Feb. 25.
“We’re ready,” Cardaño-Hillary said about the upcoming matchups. “When we step out on the court it’s full throttle. There’s no stopping us at this point.”