May 27, 2011

Smith Sends Northwestern to NCAA Final

by Brian Logue | | NCAA Women's Final Four Blog

Erin Fitzgerald scored three goals to help Northwestern beat North Carolina 11-10 in the NCAA semifinals on Friday night.

© Kevin P. Tucker

STONY BROOK, N.Y. – North Carolina threw the book at Northwestern’s Shannon Smith, but when the game was on the line, there was no stopping the Wildcats’ star attacker.

Smith started with the ball behind the cage after a restart and drove to the goal, scoring her fourth goal of the game with 18 seconds left to send the Wildcats past North Carolina 11-10 in a NCAA Division I women’s semifinal Friday night at LaValle Stadium.

“There was no Plan B or C for me,” said Smith, one of nine Long Island natives for Northwestern playing a homecoming game of sorts. “I had all the confidence in myself. I like the last shot. That’s what you play for as an athlete. I knew it was going in when I had it.”

Smith’s goal wiped out a late comeback for North Carolina, which trailed 10-7 with 10 minutes to play. Laura Zimmerman sandwiched a pair of goals around one from freshman Brittney Coppa as the Tar Heels scored three times in a span of just 2:46 to tie the game 10-10 with 7:13 remaining. Neither team scored again until Smith’s game winner.

Northwestern (20-2) advances to Sunday’s championship game, where it will get its first crack at Maryland since last year’s national championship game. Maryland erased a 6-0 deficit to beat Northwestern in last year’s NCAA final, ending a string of five straight national championships for the Wildcats.

Northwestern was able to advance because it fought through what could have been a tough first half against Carolina. The Tar Heels outshot Northwestern 20-8 in the opening half and dominated possession.

“We got a lot of really great looks early in the game,” said North Carolina head coach Jenny Levy. “Unfortunately we didn’t capitalize on those. I thought they were high percentage. We were just missing the cage, really.”

The Heels missed the cage on six shots in the opening 15 minutes of the half, while Northwestern took advantage of almost every chance it had. The Wildcats jumped on top 4-1, but UNC came back to tie the game 5-5 on Zimmerman’s goal with seven seconds left in the half.

UNC briefly took two leads in the second half, lastly on Abbey Friend’s goal with 27:11 left that gave it a 7-6 lead, but Northwestern then ripped off four straight goals. Erin Fitzgerald had two goals during the run that gave Northwestern its 10-7 lead, but UNC made its final charge before Smith decided it with her late goal.

“Shannon’s a great player,” said Levy, whose team spent much of the second half trying to faceguard Smith. “You can’t go into a game without any type of game plan against her. She scored four on us. I told her after the game she was the margin of victory for her team.”

The other big star for Northwestern was junior goalie Brianne LoManto, another Long Island native. LoManto made just seven saves, but none of them were cheap. Every single one of the saves came on great scoring chances for UNC, and that was a big factor in helping the Wildcats overcome a 30-19 shooting disadvantage.

Smith’s five points (4g, 1a) led Northwestern, while Fitzgerald added three goals. Zimmerman led UNC with four goals and an assist, while Becky Lynch and Friend each added two goals and Corey Donohoe had a goal and two assists. North Carolina ended the season with a 15-6 record. It was the third straight year that UNC ended its season with a loss to Northwestern in the NCAA tournament.

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