INDIANAPOLIS – This was Wednesday night, and the Northwestern women’s basketball team was eating dinner after a pre-Big Ten tournament meeting. But what was everyone watching on their iPads and phones?

 
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Answer: The Wildcat men beating Michigan with a last second court-length pass and layup from Nathan Taphorn to Dererk Pardon. You know, the play that lit up all the highlight shows?  “We had to watch it three or four times, just to see the pass,” coach Joe McKeown was saying Thursday, after his Wildcats had won their own game in the Big Ten tournament. “He looked like Andrew Luck or something.”

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And so, the happy family that is Northwestern savored another good day.

You’ve probably noticed what the men’s team has been up to, closing in on history and its first NCAA Tournament bid. The women ain’t bad either. Thursday’s 78-73 win over Iowa, driven by 34 points from Nia Coffey – remember that last name – pushed Northwestern’s record to 20-10.

Can winning be like chicken pox – contagious? It can at least be appreciated by a team on the same campus that understands the obstacles at a place like Northwestern; a private school of 8,000 trying to coexist among a Big Ten herd of 50,000-student behemoths.

“We’re always an underdog,” McKeown said. “I think Chris (men’s coach Collins) embraces that, and you’re seeing that. I think you’re also seeing the Northwestern community come out nationwide. Our history isn’t great in basketball, and we’re trying to change that pretty quick.”

So the Wildcat men have a big fan in McKeown.

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“You see how hard they work – their staff, their players – I think now you see the results. They’re guys you want to see win because they’re always trying to do the right thing. They’ve just grinded so hard to get to this point. As much as you’re seeing a great year, I think you’re seeing foundations where you can be successful for a long time.”

The Northwestern women don’t need to break down any NCAA tournament barriers. They’ve made it seven times, most recently in 2015. But they’ll need to do a lot of good things at the Big Ten tournament to make it this season. And when McKeown wanted someone to talk with his players to get them ready, he knew just the guy to call.

Chris Collins, partly for all his months of March at Duke.

“His perspective on the postseason is so relevant to what we do. He just talked about a sense of urgency, or else you’re going home. We say that, too, but we’ve been talking to these guys every day all year. Sometimes it’s good for them to hear a different voice. Maybe the same message, but a different messenger. That’s where he really connected with our team.”

It worked Thursday, anyway, as the Wildcats beat the higher-seeded Hawkeyes. Coffey carried the day, hitting 15 of her 26 shots. This is her last go-around as a senior, but try not to mention that.

“All I’m focused on is doing what I can do for this team now. Then I can cry later when it’s over,” she said. “Right now, I need to finish this job first.”

It’s a big year for the Coffey name in the Big Ten. Her brother Amir is a freshman at Minnesota and a key player in the Gophers’ revival. She roots for the Northwestern men, of course, but she likes to see good box scores from Minnesota, too. “Blood’s over everything,” she said.

So it’s a good time to be a Northwestern Wildcat, no matter the gender. As of Thursday, there were 41 wins between them.

“I feel like what Northwestern has been able to do shows we can have the best of both worlds, we can have the great academics and the great sports as well,” Coffey said. “Making that feeling spread throughout the community and throughout Chicago is absolutely amazing.”

While she was torching Iowa for 34 points, wonder if the Northwestern men were on their phones watching her? Or a certain Gopher in Minnesota?
 

Mike Lopresti is a member of the US Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, Ball State journalism Hall of Fame and Indiana Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame. He has covered college basketball for 43 years, including 38 Final Fours. He is so old he covered Bob Knight when he had dark hair and basketball shorts were actually short.
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