HOFFMAN ESTATES – Everybody in the stands was laughing. They couldn’t help it.
Somehow, Melissa Dixon managed to keep a straight face.
Down on the court, the former Johnsburg star and her Iowa Hawkeyes teammates were trying to play against Northwestern in the Big Ten women’s basketball tournament, but the horn was stuck. An official at center court raised his hands in surprise, proving that nobody was pressing the button that filled the Sears Centre Arena with noise.
Then it stopped.
Then it started again.
Then it stopped.
Then it started again.
Coaches called their players to the benches to discuss strategy. Officials huddled near the scorers’ table. Band members screamed and waved their arms in mock hysteria.
Dixon blocked out the noise and focused on her next assignment.
“We just had to stay focused,” said Dixon, a 20-year-old sophomore who led the Big Ten in 3-point percentage this season. “The game wasn’t over at that point.”
A half-hour later, the game was over, and Dixon could relax and laugh about the
second-half buzzer ghosts. The Hawkeyes beat Northwestern, 60-55, on Thursday to earn their 20th win and to advance to the quarterfinals of the conference tournament today against Nebraska.
Welcome to March loudness, er, madness.
Those who follow local hoops probably identify with Dixon as a prolific scorer. She is the only girls player in McHenry County area history to surpass 2,000 points during her career, and she was named Northwest Herald Girls Basketball Player of the Year in 2010 and 2011.
Yet Dixon’s focus against the Wildcats was defense, defense, defense.
At 5-foot-8, Dixon matched up against 6-foot-1 forward Maggie Lyon, a talented freshman from Wilmette. A couple of times, she switched to defend Alex Cohen, who stands 6-foot-5.
Picture yourself trying to guard an oak tree. That’s kind of what it looked like.
Yet Dixon prevailed. She limited Lyon to 2-for-10 shooting with a pair of turnovers, which was important because the Wildcats quieted Dixon on offense (0 for 3 shooting, three assists).
In a perfect world, Dixon would have preferred to shine on offense and defense. But she knew her top priority was to pester the Wildcats, and she did exactly that.
“I take a lot of pride in my defense,” Dixon said. “Going into the game, we knew Maggie was such a great player, and we knew we had to stop her. That was a big focus of my game.”
There’s that word again: Focus.
Off the court, Dixon is friendly and laid back. She loves to spend time with her teammates. Her Twitter messages are filled with exclamation marks and smiley faces.
On the court, it’s a different story. Dixon plays with a relentless style that has impressed conference coaches, who voted her as Big Ten Sixth Player of the Year this week.
Melissa’s father, Scott Dixon, jokingly compared his daughter’s on- and off-court demeanor to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
“From Day One, she really had her focus and attention on basketball,” Scott Dixon said. “She always played hard. She has one speed, and it’s all-out.”
Dixon learned to go all-out at an early age.
She grew up with one backyard court, two brothers, many of their friends and zero referees. Her brother Mike, who is a junior at Iowa, is one year older than her. Her brother Steve, who is a junior at Johnsburg, is three years younger.
“It always got really competitive,” she said. “No one wanted to lose, ever.”
But someone had to lose, always.
Scott Dixon did his best not to interfere with his children’s play.
“It was kind of a no-holds-barred type of thing,” he said. “It was tough.
“I didn’t police it too much. Although, when it got to a certain point, you had to step in so somebody wouldn’t kill each other.”
Once, the boys tried out boxing gloves in the backyard. They dared Melissa to a bout.
Naturally, she accepted the challenge. She squared off against Steve.
“They got in a little boxing match out on the court, and she pounded him pretty good,” Scott Dixon said with a laugh. “He kind of stayed away from her after that for a few years.”
Dixon always has been backyard tough. Now, she’s Big Ten tough.
And, not surprisingly, March just so happens to be her favorite month.
“It’s like Christmas,” Dixon said.
Except, instead of traditional songs, the soundtrack of the season is a nonstop buzzer.
• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @tcmusick.
IF YOU GO
The seventh-seeded Iowa Hawkeyes will play the second-seeded Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Big Ten women’s basketball tournament quarterfinals at 11:30 a.m. Friday at the Sears Centre Arena in Hoffman Estates. Tickets remain available. The game also will be televised on the Big Ten Network.