April 19, 2011

Sheehan Stanwick Burch: Why Northwestern Has Hit the Skids

by Sheehan Stanwick Burch | LaxMagazine.com

Kelly Amonte Hiller had warned that turnovers and poor shooting would catch up to Northwestern. They did last week in losses to Florida and Johns Hopkins, the first time the Wildcats have lost two consecutive games since 2003.

© TD Paulius/Midwest Lacrosse Photography

I can't seem to get Northwestern's two-game losing streak out of my mind.

That's right, losing streak.

Following a somewhat surprising loss to Florida last Thursday, Northwestern faced a very hungry, unranked Johns Hopkins team on Saturday and suffered an even more surprising defeat.

In the span of just three days, the Wildcats lost back-to-back games for the first time since April 19, 2003. Also, the loss to Johns Hopkins was the Wildcats' first loss against an unranked team since the 2003 season.

After the Florida defeat, Northwestern coach Kelly Amonte Hiller told reporters, "We had some bad turnovers at bad times, and I think that it's obviously a slight pattern throughout the season. When you play a great team, it gets exposed."

Another area that plagued the Wildcats during this unexpected rough stretch was their shooting.

Said Amonte Hiller: "We couldn't put our shots away, and that's been happening all season, but when you get into a tight game, it actually means something. We weren't able to put away those opportunities, and therefore we weren't able to win the game."

These shooting woes were evident a few weeks ago against Duke. Even though Northwestern escaped with a win against Duke, it was written in this space that the Wildcats needed to shoot better, as they went 12-for-37 and only made just three of their 13 free position attempts.

Turnovers and shooting woes are not characteristic of Northwestern lacrosse. In the 13-11 loss to Florida, the Wildcats were 0-for-4 on free positions as they fell behind big in the first half. With a chance to tie the game with less than two minutes left against Johns Hopkins, Brooke Matthews opted to pass rather than shoot out of a free position. The pass was deflected, resulted in a turnover and the Blue Jays held on for the 12-11 upset.

Sometimes it takes a loss or two for a team to really focus on correcting its issues.

I have always been in awe of the Wildcats' ability to maintain possession and limit careless turnovers and mental mistakes. Amonte Hiller has hinted that this team is a bit different, however, and rougher around the edges.

Perhaps foreshadowing their recent skid, Amonte Hiller has stated in several interviews that the Wildcats needed to work on eliminating these errors, or it would catch up to them. It did.

For a team that has been long known for its composure and relentless take-away defense, the statistics tell a different story. So far in 2011, Northwestern has more turnovers than its opponents (196 to 187) and has fewer caused turnovers than its opponents (101 to 110).

About the Author

Sheehan Stanwick Burch, a former All-American at Georgetown, is a college women's lacrosse analyst for CBS College Sports. Check laxmagazine.com each week for columns and podcasts.

Fortunately, the Wildcats have been cleaning up on the draw circle, which is a crucial advantage when it comes to maintaining possession and generating offensive opportunities.

The good news in Evanston is that there is enough talent to make another run for a championship.

However, to do so, the Wildcats will need to clean up these areas. That's doable. They have two weeks left in the regular season -- a stretch that includes games this week at home against Ohio State and Stanford -- before the ALC tournament begins on May 5.

Northwestern has stubbed its toe in seasons past. Though the Wildcats suffered just five losses from 2005 through 2010, they always seem to rebound stronger.

These prior missteps may have also served as motivation, as Northwestern each time has managed some measure of revenge by later beating the teams that handed it a rare defeat.

If past is prologue, I would not be surprised to see Northwestern in the final four again.

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