CHARLESTON -- The tough non-conference slate comes to an end for the Eastern Illinois women's basketball team on Friday when the Panthers travel to Evanston to take on Big Ten opponent Northwestern. The game tips off at 4 p.m. It's the last non-conference game before EIU travels to Murray State to start Ohio Valley Conference play on Thursday, Dec. 28.
EIU's non-conference schedule wasn't lacking in any tough games. The Panthers opened the with a 29-point loss to a Northern Illinois team that's 8-2 on the season so far. Then EIU lost to Wright State, a 9-2 team, on the road. A few games later, the Panthers closed out a long road trip with a loss to Cleveland State, which is 8-3. Then on Wednesday, the Panthers lost in overtime to North Texas, which improved to 8-3.
Only three of the 10 opponents EIU has faced so far this season have a losing record - Saint Joseph's (5-6), Evansville (3-8) and Fort Wayne (3-9). The Panthers' first 10 non-conference opponents have a 60-46 overall record.
Northwestern will only be the fourth non-conference team EIU has faced that has a losing record. The Wildcats are 6-7 on the season and have dropped their last three games. Northwestern has fallen to five mid-major teams already this season
EIU head coach Matt Bollant knows Northwestern well since he coached against them when he was the head coach at Illinois the past few seasons.
"They rebound the ball really well and that's one of the biggest concerns," Bollant said. "We limited (North Texas) to 12 offensive rebounds and 32 misses (Wednesday) is pretty good. Can we get that same percentage again against Northwestern? It will be a little more difficult."
Despite the losing record, Northwestern is pulling down 37.6 rebounds per game and has a rebounding margin of plus-4.4. But Northwestern is only averaging 61.7 points per game even though the Wildcats are shooting 44.0 percent from the field. Plus Northwestern is averaging more turnovers (18.1) per game than assists (16.1).
EIU's defense is coming off a strong performance against North Texas. The Panthers were physical with the Mean Green and held them to 37 percent shooting and forced 22 turnovers. Bollant is hoping for that same type of defensive intensity on Friday.
"Just recognize what we are in and what we are doing (is key)," Bollant said. "We didn't switch up the defense (against North Texas) because (man-to-man) was really working. That was the first time this season, maybe Evansville, where our man defense was really good."
Lindsey Pulliam leads Northwestern with 14.7 points per game and Abi Scheid is averaging 13 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah is averaging almost a double-double with 9.8 points and 10 rebounds per game.
EIU has been without four-year starting point guard Grace Lennox for two games, but sophomore Danielle Berry and freshman Taylor Steele have stepped up in her absence. Against Valparaiso, Steele scored 12 points and grabbed five rebounds and then followed that up a career-high 21 points against North Texas on 7-of-10 shooting, including three 3-pointers. She added three assists and five rebounds.
Bollant said Steele has stepped up in the past couple of games.
"She's been awesome," Bollant said. "She's stepped into a starting role and played with courage and she's the one I wanted taking shots (against North Texas) because she was wanting it and being aggressive."
Berry had 13 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two steals against Valparaiso and then had seven points, six rebounds, four assists and five steals against North Texas.
"With Grace out, we are all trying to do our part and step up a little more to cover for her not being here," Steele said. "It's really working for us to stay together and just keep playing to our abilities."