PREVIEW: Northwestern Women’s Lacrosse vs. UNC – NCAA Semi-Final

WNUR’s Lynden Ostrander previews today’s match-up between the Northwestern University Wildcats women’s lacrosse team and the University of North Carolina Tar Heels as the two teams fight to claim a spot in this year’s national championship game. Coverage of today’s contest begins at 3:30 at 89.3 FM in the Evanston/Chicago area and worldwide.

Photo Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-US PRESSWIRE

Photo Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-US PRESSWIRE

It’s official: Northwestern has punched their ticket to Philadelphia. On Friday, the Cats will play in their ninth Final Four, a streak unparalleled in women’s lacrosse. This team is straight up filthy and peaking at the right time. But Friday will be no easy task as the Cats take on one of the two teams to have their number this year-UNC.

The Tar Heels clipped the Cats 11-8 in Chapel Hill, in only the third game of the season for the Cats. Not only is this a new Cats team, it’s the hottest team in women’s lacrosse. With Florida out of the picture, the road to hoisting the trophy is a heck of a lot easier. Plus, Northwestern is 8-0 all-time in the NCAA semifinals, including a 15-10 win against UNC in the 2010 semifinals.

I can already hear the “Can’t hold us” song blaring in the background when the Cats seize that trophy, because no team can hold them right now. And I know all those haters hating on this team earlier this year are eating their words right about now. (I know because people told me to my face I was crazy for thinking the Cats would win.

The Cats have scored 30 goals in the two games they have played in the NCAA tournament; that’s absurd. The Cats have been spearheaded this year by arguably the best player in Women’s Lacrosse, Taylor Thorton.

In the last two rounds of the tourney,  Thornton has had 4 goals, 9 draw controls, 2 assists, 6 points on 6 shots, 5 groundballs, and 5 caused turnovers. What better way to go out, then to put on the cape and soar over the competition for her third national championship.

Thornton is also a finalist for the Sports Illustrated college athlete of the year. Crazy to think that Thorton didn’t even start lacrosse till she was 15 and now she’s arguably been the most dominant women’s college lacrosse player in division 1 history.

But Northwestern would not have gotten to this point without Senior Erin Fitzgerald. The other first team All-American besides Thorton, Fitzgerald has put up 65 points this year, and whopping 59 goals. And after going scoreless off 5 shots in the first round, Fitzgerald bounced back with 3 goals on 4 shots in the quarterfinals.

Another Cat that has not only stepped up in the NCAA tourney, but the entire season is Alyssa Leonard. Leonard will probably break every draw control record in division 1 history and besides Thorton, is the most pivotal player on this team, because that department is the most crucial one in lacrosse.

But Leonard is such a dynamic player that she also is second on the team in goals, assists and points. In the Cats two NCAA tournament games this year Leonard has posted 7 goals, 1 assist, 10 draw controls, 2 groundballs, and 8 points the most out of any Cat in that span.

Then there’s Senior Gabriella Flibotte. The defensive second-team All-American has been vital to the Cats success this year. She is second on the team in draw controls and leads the team in caused turnovers, which is the most vital defensive stat. In her last two games she’s had 7 groundballs, 6 draw controls, and 5 caused turnovers.

In her first year as a starter, goalkeeper Bridget Bianco has far exceeded people’s expectations. The Sophomore Bianco, was named IWLCA All-West/ Midwest region and a third team all-American.

For a first year starter to be a third team all-American, and have the 5th best goals against average in the nation is absolutely ridiculous. Just like hockey, lacrosse is a sport where if your goaltender gets hot in the playoffs they can take you all the way. Such is the case with Bianco in the cage. Against Stanford Bianco allowed just 8 goals in 60 minutes and had 4 saves, all-coming in the second half.

Versus Penn State she allowed a mere 4 goals in 54 minutes and had a save. If you have a goalie that has only let 12 goals go by her in 2 games, your sitting pretty as a team.

The Cats offense has been on a tear in the tourney, the defense has been stellar, and the goalie is playing the best lax of her life. Oh, by the way the Cats are lead by a coach who is 34-2 all-time in the tourney.

But now comes the Cats first real test of the tourney. The Tar Heels as I mentioned earlier are one of only two teams to beat the Cats this year. Granted, the Heels have not yet played a top 8 seed in their 3 wins of this tourney, but the third seeded Tar Heels have notched a mind-boggling 50 goals in 3 games. Flat out, they can put the ball in the net.

The last time these two teams met this season, Northwestern was riding a four-game winning streak vs. UNC and ten game winning streak versus ACC opponents. Both of those streaks were abruptly snapped. And though Northwestern leads the all-time series 10-3, the last four games have been decided by a total of 5 goals, and UNC won the last contest.

As was the case earlier in the year, Northwester was down early against the Heels by the count of 7-1 in the first half. The Cats staged a furious comeback, making the score 10-8 with 15 minutes remaining in the game. UNC milked 13 minutes off the cock before scoring another goal with 1 minute remaining and taking the contest 11-8.

In that game the Cats defense allowed 4 different Tar Heels to score 2 or more goals. The Cats were outshot in the first half 13-9, lost the battle of groundballs by 6, and went o of 4 on free possession shots, while UNC went 2 for 2. Though for the game Northwestern played better statistically as a team, their first half blunders caught up with them.

If the Cats want to get to the NCAA Championship they have to neutralize the Tar Heels first team all-American Kara Cannizaro. In her first game against the Cats she scored twice. In the NCAA quarterfinals she tallied 3 goals on 4 shots, had 5 points for the game and notched 5 groundballs. The girl has 72 points on the year, if the Cats can hold her in check, the Cats will eliminate just about half of the Tar Heels offensive firepower.

Most of the other half is held by second team all-American Abbey Friend. She had the most goals against the Cats last time around. And in her last game she had a staggering 5 goals off 5 shots. That’s about efficient as you can get, and she’s their hottest player right now.

The Cats should also watch out for the Tar Heels third leading scorer Brittney Coppa, who had 2 goals last game and is a third-team all-American. But the main focus has to be shutting down Cannizaro and not letting Friend take over the scoring if Cannizaro can’t get it going.

If you’re, Northwestern you eliminate the other team’s top offensive threat and if a girl gets going offensively you force another player to beat you. Bottom line; don’t let the hot hand get in a rhythm.

The matchup of the game will be first team all-American Erin Fitzgerald at attack for the Cats vs. first team all-American defender Sloane Serpe for the Tar Heels. Lately, the Cats have had multiple scorers contribute, but, let’s be honest the Cats offense starts with Fitzgerald and Thorton picks up the pace if she’s not scoring.

Last time versus the Tar Heels Sloane shut down Fitzgerald, as she only scored once on three shots, and had three turnovers, leading to four frustration fouls.

The Tar Heels will have Serpe on Fitzgerald to start, and on Thorton if she gets going. But Fitzgerald has to score 2 or 3 goals, or get other Cats involved with drives to the crease and assists if Northwestern wants to have a chance to win.

Northwestern thrives off momentum. UNC wants to slow the game down and control the momentum. If I’m Northwestern, I’m pushing the ball, and not taking my foot off the gas pedal.

Northwestern should do the same defensively as they have recently, which is attacking players and trying to cause turnovers, The only team to counter Northwestern’s type of defense was Florida, but we all know what happened the second time around. And no coach is better at making second half adjustments than the Cats’ Hiller.

The Cats are 15-1 all-time in the final four. They have been here in before. The seniors on this team remember the only loss they have suffered as a program in the NCAA championship to Maryland. In the end I think the Cats experience, coupled with the thought of revenge on their minds, as a unit will be too much for the Tar Heels. The Cats overpower the Tar Heels 13-9 and head to their ninth consecutive national championship.

With the way this season has gone it’s almost as if Northwestern is destined for another three-peat. Either that or they simply won’t be denied for what they view is rightfully theirs.

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