May 21, 2011

Northwestern Blasts Shorthanded Albany

by Matt Forman | | Live Blog Replay | Blog/Chat Center

Erin Fitzgerald's failed chest-bump attempt with Shannon Smith was about the only thing that didn't go right for them and their Northwestern teammates Saturday.

© TD Paulius/Midwest Lacrosse Photography

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Erin Fitzgerald celebrated her third goal of Saturday's NCAA Division I women's lacrosse quarterfinal by trying to chest-bump teammate Shannon Smith, who sent a pretty pass through traffic to set up the score. The only problem? Fitzgerald whiffed.

Fitzgerald jumped higher than Smith and only nicked her shoulder. Fitzgerald tumbled to the ground and rolled around on the turf before regaining composure.

"I'll take the blame for that one," Fitzgerald said with a laugh. "I got a little too excited and overcommitted. A little embarrassing. Thank you for noticing."

Fitzgerald had reason to celebrate, as the chest-bump gone awry was just about the only thing No. 2 Northwestern (19-3) did wrong Saturday night. Fitzgerald's tally gave Northwestern a 15-3 advantage, and the Wildcats rolled the rest of the way to an 18-4 victory over Albany (18-1) at Lakeside Field to punch their ticket to Stony Brook.

Smith scored five goals to power Northwestern, which will be the second team in women's lacrosse history to make seven straight trips to the final four. The Wildcats' 14-goal margin of victory was their largest in any quarterfinal game and second-largest in any NCAA tournament contest during that seven-year span.

"It's an awesome feeling," Northwestern coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said. "One of the assistants said after the game, 'It's not a right to go to the final four.' And I think this team really earned it. We've progressed and we're gaining some momentum heading into this tournament, and that's exciting."

But as well as Northwestern played Saturday — Smith called it the best 60-minute effort the team has put together all year — this question has to be asked: How different would the outcome have been if Albany had starting goalkeeper Anna Berman between the pipes? Berman, second in the nation in goals against per game with 6.86, was inactive on Saturday for "failing to comply with team standards," Albany coach John Battaglino said.

"[Not having Berman] was a blow to us — it didn't help," he said. "She did not meet the expectations set forth by her team. Since I've been here I've tried to set standards in terms of what I want the kids to accomplish, and she did not meet them."

Junior Brett Yenger, who had played in only four games before Saturday without a start, was thrust into the starting lineup in Berman's absence. Northwestern didn't learn of Berman's status until just before the game started, and the Wildcats were relentless in testing Yenger, peppering her with shots early and often. All told, Northwestern found the back of the net on 18 of its 28 shots, while Yenger made five saves.

The Wildcats were just as unyielding on the defensive end. As much as Albany tried to mimic Northwestern's speed and high-pressure defense in practice this week, Battaglino and senior attacker Jodi Battaglia said it wasn't entirely possible. The Great Danes had several players fighting through injuries, and they couldn't run 7-on-7 drills to prepare. Still, Albany was the country's last unbeaten team and made its first-ever NCAA tournament in Battaglino's first year.

"I'm very proud of them. I saw them overachieve all year," Battaglino said. "Today, we made mistakes and Northwestern capitalized right away ... It was difficult to watch at times, because I know we're a better team than we showed today ... For a team like Northwestern, you'd like to come here and play with your best stuff. I thought [Northwestern] played great, I just wish we could come back and give them a shot when we had some healthy bodies in there."

Albany was without the services of starting goalie Anna Berman (pictured), who ranked second in the nation in goals against average. Berman was inactive for "failing to comply with team standards," Albany coach John Battaglino said. Backup Brett Yenger made five saves in her first career start.

© Greg Wall

Northwestern's attacking defense sent double- and triple-teams throughout the evening, pressuring Albany at all points on the field and holding Taylor Frink, the nation's leader in assists per game, scoreless.

"You know our style -- we tend to be aggressive anyway -- but we definitely wanted to put as much pressure on them to see how they would respond," Amonte Hiller said. "We wanted to take a lot of chances and see if we could come up with some caused turnovers."

Northwestern forced 16 turnovers on Saturday, a good sign for the Wildcats' defense, which had been called into question earlier this season, especially following back-to-back losses at Florida and John's Hopkins, when they allowed 25 combined goals. But in the last four games, Northwestern has rebounded, surrendering an average of only six goals against.

"The defense has been playing well for the last several games, and we've been working on our communication and aggressiveness," Amonte Hiller said. "At the start of the game against Virginia (on April 30, an 8-4 Northwestern win) is where we really started stepping it up, and we've really carried that performance through."

Offensively, the Wildcats got scoring contributions from nine different players, which included a hat trick by freshman Kelly Rich and a highlight-reel, end-to-end goal for Taylor Thornton that showed why she's one of the sport's most exciting players.

But Smith stole the show, boosting her Tewaaraton Trophy resume by matching last week's five-goal performance in the first round against Boston College. Smith, the nation's points leader, displayed all facets of her well-rounded skill set. She used her trademark move to tickle the twine twice by charging from behind the net, but flashed a new weapon when she scored a pair on "grass-cutting," side-winding bounce shots.

"My teammates moved extremely well off-ball, so it was very hard for them to see that first slide or that second slide," Smith said. "It was easy for me to work one-on-one instead of me trying to work through a double-team."

Northwestern's quest to win its sixth national title in the last seven years now moves on to the final four, where it will meet a team it knows very well: North Carolina. Those teams have met twice each of the last two years, including the 2009 NCAA championship game and last year's semifinal.

Friday's matchup will be the second time the teams have played in 2011. If Northwestern's 7-6 thrilling overtime victory against the Tar Heels earlier this season is any indication, lacrosse fans are in for another exciting outcome. But Amonte Hiller isn't reading too much into the game played on Feb. 25.

"That game was a long time ago. Both teams are very different," she said. "They've grown a lot. They're a great team all around. They've got weapons all over the field... The one thing I would just say is our defense played pretty well in that game, and it's going to take another great defensive effort. Our offense — not so much, in that game. We're hoping for a better offensive effort than our first outing against them. It's just going to be a battle."

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