Unabridged Northwestern women’s basketball column

(A shorter version of this article originally appeared on Inside NU.) 

In which I try to answer the fundamental question of “what happened”.

It was early November and the credentials had been upgraded. 

The Northwestern Athletic Department had changed the lanyards and plastic it gave to the women’s beat writers. Now Nia Coffey, back turned, a basketball at her side, emblazoned our passes to cover the Northwestern women’s basketball team. It was an insignificant move for the team itself, but it was a statement of intent and confidence. Things were getting serious. Northwestern women’s basketball had been hauled from the wilderness into relevance. There was hype. There was presumption. 

The Athletic Department’s marketing team had prepared materials for Nia Coffey’s legitimate superstardom. An All-American spot beckoned. The first round of the WNBA Draft—when does Northwestern have a first-round draft pick in anything!—beckoned. There was a mug, some Coffey Coffee and a flash drive.

I was excited. We’ve received so much! It was hard not to be excited, with Deary, Inman and Coffey taking the floor every night. The updated credential was symbol of Joe McKeown’s program completing its rise to relevance. 

But Northwestern missed the NCAA Tournament. The clear goal, even the expectation in a workable Big Ten, was not met. In the end, Northwestern wasn’t even really close.

There are teams that build you up, teams that you can predict, teams that stir extraordinary emotions. There are teams that fill you with solace, hope, anger, indignity, anguish and, in precious moments, joy.

And then there are teams you cannot understand—

The ceiling for the 2016-17 team was obvious. Nia Coffey was a beast, a potential All-American and First Team All-Big Ten lock. Ashley Deary would become the all-time Big Ten steals leader and was two-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Christen Inman’s midrange game was automatic. Lauren Douglas was a fantastic two-way player when healthy. Younger players like Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah and Abi Scheid showed promise.

But then how could the floor be so low? I cannot give you an answer.

As high as this team could perform, the last two years were also defined by turbid offense, missed box-outs, and inexplicable defensive collapses. There were strange substitution patterns and starting lineups. There were also some incredibly unlucky bounces and whims of fate. Whatever the case, it ended on a downswing, with the seniors, worn down to the bone, languishing through their final game, a blowout loss to Ohio State. The team, exhausted and without a stadium, declined a bid to the WNIT and a chance at the program scoring record for Nia Coffey.

Fatigue and pain, soreness and exhaustion, the disheartening rush of lactic acid into your system, the mental agonies and tragedies of life amplified by expectations of performance; they ground this team into dust. It’s not fair. College sports are not fair. Life isn’t fair. Life inflicts its unfairness on whomever it wants, for however long it wants. Basketball is both a medium of unfairness, and probably meaningless when compared to everything else you can think about in a day.

In December 2015 they were home for DePaul, having passed through a paper-thin non-conference schedule. The year before, against a No. 18 DePaul team, Northwestern had won this game 97-91 in double overtime. It was one of the most important games in program history. It put Evanston on the map. Now, the rematch was set, and Northwestern had to defend its home turf in the centerpiece of the non-conference schedule, a chance for a statement home win against a crosstown rival.

Northwestern may have set the pattern for the next two years on that day. There was a sluggish start, a fightback in the second half, and then defensive catastrophe in the fourth. Northwestern lost 77-64. Twelve days later, the team blew a second half lead to lose 79-72 against an inferior Penn State team.

And then the losses kept piling up. A stunning win over Ohio State was not enough to stem the tide. That game was only a glimpse of what could have been. Sometimes, Northwestern repeated the losing formula it had against DePaul. Sometimes, Northwestern got blown off the court.

For Northwestern to win games, it seemed, so much had to go right. Northwestern’s 2014-15 season was an unmitigated disaster. Perhaps Lyon’s nagging injury was a major factor, but then again maybe it wasn’t. The team just did not look right. I watched a team that was ranked in the top 15 at the beginning of the year lose by 19 at home to a 10-16 Penn State team. Sure, the Big Ten Tournament run at the end of the year was incredible, but it was just another glimpse of what could be, not what was. It certainly gave me enough optimism for 2016-17. Instead, we saw more of the same.

Basketball is not supposed to be a game of pain tolerance. Cross-country running is a game of pain tolerance. Basketball is a game of finesse, a game for superpeople who can fly through the air and perform feats that are unthinkable for 40 minutes. And then, a few days later, they do it again. But it is also not a game of pain tolerance because there are unlimited substitutions, frequent play stoppages and large rosters. You do not have to be a superperson for more than 15 minutes at a time, usually.

I fear that Northwestern women’s basketball turned into pain tolerance. Deary, Inman and Coffey played nearly 40 minutes every game. The probability of injury or decreased performance was very high. Maybe all three wouldn’t be hurt, but the likelihood that someone would get mentally or physically worn down was high. This team had zero depth for a year, and then minimal depth for the next.

They were all warriors. Deary, Inman and Coffey, and later Douglas, back surgery be damned, just kept on going out there. McKeown could simply not trust anyone else to take their minutes off the bench. But at times, it was no longer basketball. It was some test of endurance, just to see if they could all make the finish.

And then the team had no interior presence for two years. In addition to having to play a furious zone defense on the wings, the “Big Three” also often had to figure out how to cover the rim. Northwestern’s centers were not quite good enough or strong enough to withstand 40 minutes in Big Ten play. That deficiency is in recruiting, I suppose, but then you start blaming Northwestern’s traditional problems—high academic standards, lack of basketball pedigree, crap facilities—it’s a pit of inconclusiveness.

2016-17 started well. There were easy non-conference wins. Northwestern beat a ranked Florida team (a win that later turned out to be not impressive at all) and then came back against an unranked Virginia team (which ended up being solid). But again, the fatigue was catching up to Northwestern. Coffey missed a game against No. 20 DePaul and Northwestern lost 89-66, a game which would have solidified their resume. Inman injured her ankle in that game and was in-and-out for the rest of the year. Lydia Rohde, a starter at the beginning of the year, sustained an injury and was not the same for the rest of the season.

But the team was still playing well, even with Inman hurt and depth stretched thin. For a few weeks, it didn’t seem so hard. Freshman Abi Scheid played astonishingly well at times. The bench was working out okay. Northwestern won seven straight after the DePaul loss. A loss at Gonzaga hurt, but Northwestern made up for it with a 2-0 start to the Big Ten season and a 76-60 home win over Purdue.

Coffey was unreal in this stretch. In her first three games back after DePaul, she scored 26, 30 with 12 boards a game to boot. It was ridiculous. She was so much better than Northwestern’s competition. After the Purdue game, she was averaging 20 and 12 a night, along with a good number of assists and blocks. Nothing could stop her, it seemed.

It felt like basketball again. Deary was also in rare form. In one five-game stretch, she had 31 steals. Turnovers were down and her shooting, usually her biggest weakness, was fine. Inman soon returned in full and produced one of the best games of her career, a 22-point effort on 9-of-15 shooting against Santa Clara. Against Purdue, she scored 16 and looked as good as ever.

And then—

Nothing you have read so far really matters. I have to write a women’s basketball column to close out the year because the site needs content. I have to focus on basketball, because it distracts. But this piece must include some reality.

Jordan Hankins was an amazing young woman who continues to be missed greatly. Of all the tragedies surrounding her death, what happened to the team is the least important in the grand scheme of things. I still don’t know how they kept playing basketball. I still don’t know how they beat Indiana, and then Michigan State three days later. The players said that playing basketball was the best way to honor her. It was the best way, but again, how do you keep playing basketball?

I don’t know if Hankins’ death totally derailed the season. Northwestern, having gone through its purple patch, may have run out of energy like it did in 2015-16 regardless. But for a team that was already playing through pains, absurd minutes and the stresses of college basketball, dealing with that unfathomable tragedy and unfairness guaranteed that the Wildcats would fall back into endurance mode.

There is nothing wrong with that. It is what most of us will do. In the face of senseless tragedy, endurance is second nature. We try to survive, get through the day, just keep going out there and clocking in while trying to keep the pain from leaking out. It’s terrible, but it’s human nature. The way Northwestern kept going after the tragedy was to endure and continue to play.

But basketball is no game of endurance. In a competitive conference, with teams not willing to give in, endurance becomes weakness. Thus, everything unraveled. Northwestern had lost two games against the best two teams in the conference before Hankins’ death and the Minnesota game was rescheduled. Northwestern inexplicably won four of the five games after January 9th, but things were looking dicey by the fifth win over Wisconsin on February 1st. Northwestern had gotten blown out by Michigan and faced tough fights from Rutgers and Wisconsin.

The rescheduling of the Minnesota game also brought more headaches. Northwestern played three road games in five days and lost all of them. The Indiana and Iowa contests were not even close. After rallying together to defeat Indiana a month earlier, Northwestern lost by 28 in Bloomington. It looked like Northwestern’s blowout losses to close 2015-16.

The team looked exhausted during four-game losing streak. The seniors’ incessant minutes had caught up to them again. Coffey looked tired and her shot was off. Deary rushed through things on offense. Inman constantly dealt with that ankle injury.

Northwestern pulled it together for two wins over Illinois and Rutgers. At this point, the goal, that dream of an NCAA Tournament that had spurred all the hoopla in the beginning, was nearly forgotten. The players, understandably, were less talkative. Coffey, always taciturn, was nearly silent during press conferences. We’d all agreed to just stop talking about it. When someone brought up the Hankins question at the Big Ten Tournament, Coffey simply refused to answer the question. I wanted to smack the person who asked it.

Of course, the dream wasn’t totally over. If Northwestern could steal a win at Purdue, a likely NCAA Tournament team, another solid run in the Big Ten Tournament could just get the Wildcats to the Dance.

During this time, a lot of that credit, it must be said, should also be given to Lauren Douglas. Few expected what Douglas gave Northwestern in 2016-17. After missing all of the previous season with a serious back injury, Douglas did not miss a single game in 2016-17. As the season went along, it became clear that Douglas was a huge missing piece from last year’s team. She wasn’t the Alex Cohen-type player that Northwestern desperately needed, but an extra body on the floor who wasn’t afraid to take shots bailed Northwestern out at times.

Douglas wanted to go down fighting. With her team disintegrating, she played the best basketball of her career. Against Purdue, she was unreal. Douglas was the leading scorer. Douglas had four blocks. Northwestern went up four with 1:23 remaining.

And then, the most depressing moment of my Northwestern fandom. Ashley Deary lost the ball and Purdue scored. Deary missed a three and Purdue hit two free throws to tie. Douglas’ shot was blocked. Purdue took timeout. Then, this happened:

Northwestern went to the Big Ten Tournament. Northwestern beat Iowa, gave me some hope, and then got crushed by Ohio State. As if things couldn’t get any worse, Maya Jonas came in for some meaningless minutes in the Ohio State game. There was a collision, and she re-injured her repaired knee that she had rehabbed for a full year. She could not get up. Her eyes were flooded with tears. There was silence and then muted applause after she was helped off the court.

Ian McCafferty and I sat there in utter disbelief. This was utterly pointless. Why did that happen? WHY DID THAT HAPPEN? WHY IS ANY OF THIS HAPPENING?

It came as little surprise when Northwestern declined the WNIT bid. Why prolong agony? Why endure more?

Heck, it wore down the sportswriters. I remember sitting through games in a fellow beat writer’s apartment, all of us slumped on the couch, barely typing, hoping for the spark to be within them. Every time, our hopes were dashed. If the last two years were exhausting for the fan on the couch, how much could it have weighed on the players? If I constantly struggled to make myself write, how could someone go in every three days and play 40 minutes of high-level basketball?

The future of the program looks bleak. Next year’s team will be inexperienced and underprepared. Abi Scheid, Byrdy Galernik, and Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah have never played significant minutes.

The recruiting has been…okay. There are three four-star guards in the upcoming Class of 2017. Hopefully they can give the program a lift. More likely, however, the team will struggle in their first year. The team doesn’t even have a real NCAA court. They’re playing at Evanston Township High School. These are bad times.

Should we blame Joe McKeown and his staff? Yes, he must take his share of blame for the disappointment, but at times I felt like he really did the best he could do. It’s hard to hit on recruits to build depth at Northwestern. He had to play his best players, even if they ran out of gas at the end. His starting lineups and substitution patterns were consistently odd and quite predictable, but how much of a difference did that really make? Northwestern was always going to be as good as its best players. Its best players didn’t play very well as a team for large stretches of the last two years.

Still, one cannot shake the “what-ifs”. The team that made the NCAA Tournament in 2014-15 was so fun, and seemed like the future. If Chris Collins, for example, were to underperform in the next two years, I’m sure there would be detractors calling for his job. But Collins had a bit more success to build on, no matter what you think of Carmody. McKeown had nothing and built something. That has to be worth something.

I’m sad because I really genuinely like this team. This team gave me something to live for last year, and to watch its struggles makes me angry and resentful, while also deeply sympathetic. When asked about my favorite part of Northwestern over winter break, I answered: “great seats for basketball, especially the women’s team”. It’s frustrating, depressing and yet fascinating for me. Northwestern women’s basketball will never lose my support.

We should not forget what Nia Coffey, Ashley Deary, Christen Inman and Lauren Douglas gave this team. We cannot forget the apex of Northwestern women’s basketball, even if, in the end, a lack of depth and bad circumstances sapped the team’s potential. They still achieved great things. They are amazing student athletes and represented Northwestern with distinction. They were the “Golden Generation,” a onceinadecade group. I wish them well.

But it happened. It all happened, even if I still don’t quite know what went wrong. It’s the start of a new era at Northwestern, and we will miss the old one dearly. 

It’s the start of a new era at Northwestern, even as we reckon with the past.

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