Frustrated Wildcats offer next challenge

By Todd McMahon

Learning in life makes one better and stronger for the next challenge.

With that in mind, the NIU women’s basketball team will face Northwestern tonight (7 p.m.) at Chick Evans Field House with another ounce of experience tightly stored away.

After being trounced 99-75 by Florida State on Saturday, the Huskies hope that their season of ups and downs and twists and turns will finally lead them to the promised land of the NCAA Tournament.

No matter how frustrating things have been, NIU head coach Jane Albright-Dieterle has never lost faith in her players.

“I have a tremendous belief in this group, whether or not they are struggling,” she said. “Their effort (against Florida State) was tremendous. They just never gave up.”

With the most important days coming up for the Huskies (March 5-7 at the North Star Conference Tournament), Albright-Dieterle feels success is still on the horizon.

“Look what happened over the weekend in men’s basketball,” she said about the 10 teams in the Top 25 getting beat, including the top two teams. “Then, you take the case of North Carolina State in the 1983 NCAA Tournament.

“They had 13 losses heading into the tourney and look what they achieved (a national championship). We’re ready for that to happen.”

Tne similarity between that N.C. State team and this year’s NIU squad is the stiff competition the two teams encountered throughout the season.

NIU started the year knocking off Big Ten power Michigan State. In their next game, the Huskies took Top 25-Washington to two overtimes. They’ve gone toe-to-toe with Purdue, Utah, DePaul (twice), Wisconsin-Green Bay and defending national champion Tennessee.

And they handed then-No. 4 Stephen F. Austin its only loss of the year and also knocked off Southern Illinois.

Even though the Huskies are a relatively young team, the problems with piling up losses on the road (eight) are not fully attributed to that, Albright-Dieterle said.

“Youth and inexperience have played a part,” she said, “but what hurts this team is we have had to get up for so many big games. Hopefully, we will get another opportunity to prove we can win on the road.”

Now, the Huskies must get up for yet another big game against Northwestern. The Wildcats are riding high after upsetting No. 9-Purdue, 72-70, at Welsh-Ryan Arena Sunday.

But with a 12-9 overall record and a 6-7 mark in the Big Ten, the season has been a disappointment for Northwestern, who envisioned winning the Big Ten.

“Northwestern had the biggest hopes of any Big Ten team,” Albright-Dieterle said. “They wanted to win the Big Ten. They beat Auburn to start the season.

“I think they’re an extremely frustrated team. They’re probably going to want to come in here and take out all their frustrations on us.”

The Wildcats hold a 10-9 series edge on the Huskies and have won five of the last six meetings between the two teams, including a 91-66 victory last year at Evanston.

This will mark the last game of the current eight-game series, as NIU has replaced Northwestern with the University of Iowa on next season’s schedule.

In order for the Huskies to even the overall series, they will need to let their defense do the talking and stop 1991 Big Ten Player of the Year Michelle Savage, who has become even more of a force with point guard Nancy Kennelly redshirting this year.

“We’re going to have to, from the very start, control the tempo, very much defensively,” Albright-Dieterle said. “They have a real similar team to us, but we have to contain Michelle Savage.”

NIU senior and co-captain Dee Dee Jeske said even though Northwestern is not at the top this year, a win over them still will be big. “Any win over a Big Ten school is a good win for us,” she said.

“A victory will give us some confidence and hopefully it will carry over to Thursday against Wisconsin-Green Bay,” she added. “We can win the conference tournament if everyone (on the team) believes we can, and we need to have a lot of confidence going in.”

In addition to getting some momentum for the week that lies ahead, a Huskie victory against Northwestern will put Albright-Dieterle on top of the NIU coaching charts, men or women, with 137 career victories, surpassing John McDougal who had 136 wins as head coach of the men from 1976-86.