Women’s basketball: The year that was

A season that began so promisingly, with hopes for an NCAA tournament berth long not seen around these parts, came to a muted end Sunday in the second round of the women’s NIT.

But despite the disappointing finish, the NU women’s basketball team achieved a lot this year. For a program looking to regain its rightful place among the BigTen elite, there were a lot of positives to build on, even as the team marks the end of the Amy Jaeschke era with the graduation of its most decorated player in decades.

The Wildcats finished 19-14, with those 19 wins representing the most in a season since 1995-96. The team swept Illinois, having not beaten the Illini since 1999. NU also swept powerhouse OhioState and notched its first win in the BigTen tournament since 2000 by beating Minnesota in the first round.

For a program that just three years ago seemed to be in its umpteenth year of hitting rock bottom, NU definitely has the look of a team on the rise, having now made the NIT for two years in a row. Much credit goes to head coach Joe McKeown for the fantastic turnaround job so far.

The question for next year is how NU will replace three key seniors, all starters, including the aforementioned, all-everything Jaeschke, as well as steady point guard Beth Marshall and gritty guard Meshia Reed. But a highly touted group of newcomers, with some very gifted incoming freshmen and two promising transfers, has McKeown and the Wildcats looking to stay in the hunt for an NCAA tournament bid, rather than rebuild.

More on next season’s prospects later, but first, let’s review the year that was.

The season began brightly enough, with the Wildcats racing out to a 6-0 start, including a win over perennial national power LSU. NU finished the non-conference schedule 11-2, with the losses coming to a pair of NCAA tournament squads — at Georgia Tech in the BigTen/ACC Challenge and at No. 24 DePaul.

The Wildcats opened the BigTen slate 3-2, including consecutive wins at Illinois (in OT) and against Ohio State. At that point, the Wildcats were sitting at 14-4, with an NCAA berth in sight. But the wheels would come off, starting with a four-game losing streak that pushed NU to bubble territory. Though the Wildcats would win their next two (completing sweeps over Illinois and OSU), a three-game skid put a further dagger in their tournament hopes. NU closed out the regular season with two more wins and two more losses, to finish at 17-12 overall, 6-10 in conference play.

But the team had one final shot at an NCAA invite, either by winning the BigTen tournament outright or by going through an extended run in the tournament and hoping that its solid strength of schedule and RPI would be good enough to earn an at-large berth. The Wildcats took care of their first BigTen tournament opponent, Minnesota, 53-44, but the NCAA dreams died with a bad loss in the second round to Michigan State, 56-25. Turnovers, the Wildcats’ Achilles heel all season, doomed them in their ouster.

The NIT came calling, and NU easily dispatched Creighton at home in the first round, before Sunday’s heartbreaking 72-70 loss to Alabama closed the books on the season.

WHAT WENT RIGHT:

While missing out on the NCAA tournament was disappointing, an NIT berth is still a reason to cheer. The program has been elevated now from the dregs of the conference to somewhere in the middle of the pack, and two consecutive NIT appearances and 37 combined wins in the past two seasons are a solid sign of progress. The season sweeps of Illinois and Ohio State and last year's upset of a ranked DePaul team show the team has now become a competitive force, though certainly there's room to improve.

Jaeschke, unsurprisingly, was the team’s most valuable player, averaging 21.4 points per game (12th best Division 1), 9.0 rebounds per game, and 3.2 blocks per game. Her outstanding play earned her first-team All-Big Ten honors, and she’s a Wooden Award finalist, All-American candidate and potential first round WNBA draft pick. Much has been written and said about her fateful decision to choose NU coming out of New Trier High School over a slew of established basketball powers that were recruiting her hard, and the Wildcats' future success will in no small part be due to the path that she blazed to Evanston. 

Sophomore forward Kendall Hackney was the team’s second-leading scorer, averaging 11.5 ppg and 5.1 rpg, which earned her honorable mention All-BigTen honors, along with Marshall, who averaged 10.4 ppg and 4.2 assists per game, despite missing two games due to an eye injury. 

WHAT WENT WRONG:

In a word: turnovers. Sloppy ballhandling cost the Wildcats several games this year, highlighted by the losses to Michigan State (23 TOs) in the BigTen tournament and to Alabama (24 TOs) in the NIT. Particularly as NU loses Marshall's poise and decision-making to graduation, the Wildcats need to find a point guard capable of protecting the ball. Sophomore transfer Tailor Jones was Marshall's main backup this year, even starting eight games, and while she showed some great athleticism and skill, averaging 3.6 assists per game, she needs to make smarter decisions, as evidenced by her team-high 3.5 turnovers per game, making for a not-so-attractive 1.03:1 assists-to-turnover ratio. 

The Wildcats will also need to find some depth, particularly after losing three minutes-eating starters to graduation. NU’s lack of depth seemed to wear the team down after its fast start, with just eight players shouldering the bulk of the minutes. Jaeschke was second in the BigTen in minutes played, while Marshall was fifth. Already before the season began, the Wildcats announced that junior wing Maggie Mocchi would not be returning to the team, and then in December, freshman guard Mylan Woods also left for personal reasons. Sophomore center/forward Danielle Diamant missed the team's first 15 games, also for personal reasons. 

WHO RETURNS NEXT YEAR:

Two starters in Hackney and junior wing Brittany Orban, who, with her patented corner pocket three-pointers, led the team in shooting behind the arc at 45 percent and averaged 9.6 ppg.

Diamant will be counted on to partially fill the void left by Jaeschke in the front court, and Jones may get the first shot at being the team's primary point guard. Junior guard Allison Mocchi also may be asked to shoulder more of the load, after providing some energy off the bench this year, and freshmen guards Meghan McKeown and Inesha Hale, who got limited minutes this year, return, as well.

WHO WILL BE NEW:

Coach McKeown has inked the 14th-ranked recruiting class in the nation, according to ESPN Hoopgurlz. The class is led by McDonald’s All-American wing Morgan Jones, Tailor’s sister, whom Hoopgurlz ranks as the No. 9 prospect in the nation, and four-star 6’5" forward Alex Cohen. Guard Karly Roser, who played on the Canadian under-17 national team, rounds out the class.

Also eligible next year will be a pair of transfers: 6’7" sophomore center Anna Cole, who came from Kentucky after an injury-plagued freshman season, and 6’3" junior forward Kate Popovic, who transferred from Pitt and made 10 starts there as a sophomore.

The team will certainly have a different look, with all the newcomers, but the pieces look to be in place for another successful season.

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