Nia Coffey could feel things starting to change last season. As a freshman at Northwestern, the former Hopkins High School star was determined to help the Wildcats climb back into the elite ranks of the Big Ten, a place they hadn’t seen since the mid-1990s.
Veteran coach Joe McKeown had been patiently rebuilding the program since his arrival in 2008. But that shift Coffey sensed happened largely because of her instant impact — and as she continued to bloom this season, she has led the Wildcats to a revival of those glory days. Northwestern will open play in the NCAA tournament Friday as a No. 7 seed in the Oklahoma City regional, earning its first invitation to the tournament in 17 years on the heels of an invigorating season.
“This was building during my freshman year, and everything we’ve been working toward is really starting to show,” said Coffey, who led Hopkins to three state titles. “I’m really happy with what’s happening.”
The Wildcats (23-8) are making the seventh NCAA tournament appearance in school history and will play 10th-seeded Arkansas in Waco, Texas. They won 20 games for the first time since 1996, and a dozen of those victories came in Big Ten play, the most for Northwestern since 1993.
Though the Wildcats are known for a well-balanced offense, they are centered around Coffey. The 6-1 forward leads the team with 15.9 points and 8.7 rebounds per game and earned first-team all-Big Ten honors for the second season in a row.
“In the offseason, we made a change in our mentality in terms of a sense of togetherness, and we have better chemistry overall,” Coffey said. “I just really feel like we’ve come together as one.”
After finishing 17-16 last season — and 5-11 in the Big Ten — Northwestern won its first 10 games this season. The Wildcats finished fourth in the Big Ten and entered the AP poll for the first time since January 1996. They enter the NCAA tournament with nine victories in their past 11 games, with both losses coming to No. 4 Maryland.
Coffey registered 14 double-doubles this season, with 11 of those in Big Ten play. She and Gophers center Amanda Zahui B. are the only players to rank in the league’s top 10 in points, rebounds and blocked shots.
Coffey said she has fallen in love with Northwestern and has made Evanston, Ill., a second home. The feeling is reciprocal. A high school All-America and the Star Tribune’s metro player of the year in 2013, she chose Northwestern because she believed it was a rising program. In her first game for the Wildcats, she scored 19 points and had five blocks, four rebounds and three steals. She rarely slowed down since.
“She’s a great player,” said McKeown, who earned his 600th career victory this season. “She’s had an incredible year. She’s just done everything to put us in this position in so many ways.”
McKeown said his team entered this season with big ambitions and has come to believe in its capabilities. While Coffey is its star, he said she is a particularly unselfish and mature player — something that shows in her hopes for her basketball future, and for Northwestern’s.
“To rebuild this [program] feels really amazing, and to do it with these girls is great,” she said. “I believe we can go really far. I don’t know necessarily what that is, but if we continue to work hard and work together, we can go anywhere.”