April 2, 2011

Northwestern Downs Duke Despite Huge Game by Mackler

by Matt Forman | LaxMagazine.com | Live Blog Replay

Brianne LoManto's stout play in the second half allowed Northwestern to come back to defeat Duke and her counterpart, Mollie Mackler.

© Jim Cowsert

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Mollie Mackler made a case that she is the nation's best goalkeeper when she registered a career-high 20 saves, including 15 in the first half, against Northwestern on Saturday. Mackler was a brick wall, saving seemingly everything that came her way.

But as good as Mackler was, Northwestern knew she couldn't keep stopping shot after shot from point-blank range, and eventually the Wildcats' offense came to life. After the Blue Devils raced out to an early lead -- they led by as many as three goals for about five minutes in the second half -- Northwestern surged behind Shannon Smith's pair of goals and stout play from its own goalkeeper Brianne LoManto to end the game on a 7-2 run.

Much like everyone expected, it was a close, hard-fought game between two of the nation's top teams, but No. 2 Northwestern (10-0) escaped No. 3 Duke, 12-10, on a brisk, windy afternoon at Lakeside Field.

"We took some poor shots right from the beginning," Northwestern coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said. "We gave [Mackler] some confidence and she played on her head pretty much the whole game. But I think we were a little bit more aggressive, a little bit more poised in the second half, and that's how we were able to convert on some opportunities. We were just a little tentative in the first half."

But the story of the day was Mackler, who stopped the first nine shots she faced. She also held the Wildcats to a 1-of-9 conversion rate on free-position opportunities in the opening period. Mackler's performance is even more impressive considering where she was at this point one year ago. The Longmeadow, Mass., native suffered a season-ending knee injury against Boston University in the seventh game of 2010, and she worked diligently to get back into game shape this year.

"Mollie was fantastic," Duke coach Kerstin Kimel said. "What's great is that she's worked so hard to recover from her injury, and this whole season has been a work in progress for her, with where she started at the beginning of the season until now. The things that she's been focusing on really came into play today, and I'm really proud of her. I'm just disappointed that we didn't do other things on the field that would help support her performance."

With Mackler dominating the early going, Northwestern got frustrated. Duke's high-pressure defense on the ball rattled the Wildcats' offense, as they struggled to establish their offensive sets. Northwestern had most of its success running a fast-break, transition offense or with isolation plays from the fan, and it was unable to pick apart Duke (9-2) with its usual cutting attack.

"Offensively, we're still trying to find our groove," Amonte Hiller said, who watched seven different players score for the Wildcats. "We like to [run] a lot, but we weren't able to as much [as we would have liked]. We missed those first shots and then we got tight, and we tried to sit back a little bit. In the second half when we were down by a few goals, we realized there was no other option."

Smith, Northwestern's leading scorer, was particularly slowed in the first half, and then tallied two unassisted goals in the second. The junior pulled off her trademark underneath dodge to split two defenders and then shot low past Mackler both times.

"If you don't have your big players step up, then you can't win games," Amonte Hiller said. "It's crucial, all the time. We need [Smith] to play big. ... She's got a lot of different moves around the crease, she's crafty. She can feed as well, so she's pretty difficult to defend. And if they double-team, it just gives somebody else an opening."

Junior Jessica Russo and freshman Kara Mupo, who each found the back of the net twice, were the benefactors of the attention given to Smith.

For Duke, Kimel identified three main areas where her team strayed from its game plan, especially after halftime, which propelled Northwestern to its late rally.

"No. 1, we didn't change the level of our shots; I felt like we gave Northwestern's goalie some easy saves," Kimel said. "I felt like, defensively, we were overly physical. We didn't stay focused on playing good body positioning, and we created a lot of fouls and 8-meter opportunities for them. Last, we didn't take care of the ball as well in the second half, and that was disappointing. ... Really, we didn't finish it. That's the bottom line."

The numbers back up Kimel's claims. After making just three saves in the first half, LoManto made eight in the second to collect a season-high 11 stops. Duke committed 38 fouls -- drawing six yellow cards -- in the game, which led to 13 free-position chances for the Wildcats. And Duke turned the ball over eight times after recess.

Still, when Duke's offense got settled, Emma Hamm, Christie Kaestner and Amanda Jones had little difficulty working efficiently in Northwestern's defensive end. Taylor Thornton was effective shutting down Kat Thomas, but the Blue Devils exposed openings in the Wildcats' normally vaunted unit.

With the loss, Duke has now lost games to No. 1 Maryland and No. 2 Northwestern. But unlike against the Terrapins, this time the Blue Devils weren't completely healthy. They had to play without senior and first team All-American Sarah Bullard, who has a high femoral stress reaction. They were also missing contributing midfielder junior Bridget Nolan, who is recovering from a broken wrist.

"When we get back to full strength, hopefully the timing of everybody coming together will be really big for us," Kimel said.

On the other side, Northwestern showed that it can be beaten. But this game, along with the overtime win over North Carolina earlier this year, is helping make the Wildcats battle-tested.

"Hopefully it helps us mature a little bit, and puts us in a position where we don't have to do that again," Amonte Hiller said. "[In the second half], we were able to really gain momentum and be explosive. And now we just need to bring that from minute one to minute 60."

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