May 12, 2012

Northwestern Rules The Sky, Beats Notre Dame

by Jonah Rosenblum | | Live Blog Replay

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Notre Dame struck some fear in Northwestern's heart early, but the Wildcats dominated the second half to defeat the Fighting Irish, 12-7, in the first round of the NCAA Division I women's lacrosse tournament.

After Northwestern struggled on the draw its last time out in the ALC Championship against Florida, with the Gators taking 18 of 23 draw controls, the Wildcats dominated the draw against the Fighting Irish. Northwestern secured the first five draw controls of the game and never let up, as it won that battle over Notre Dame, 15-5.

"We worked harder," Northwestern coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said. "It was not a good thing to have been beat 18-5 [on draw controls]. It has never happened before in our program. I took that personally. I think many of our people on our team took that personally and went out there and battled like it was the end of their life every single draw."

Taylor Thornton scored two goals and had two draw controls as Northwestern dominated overall on the draw in a 12-7 first-round win over Notre Dame.
© John Konstantaras

Sophomore Alyssa Leonard came up with eight draw controls, just two shy of her career-high against Navy, and generally dominated the skies with her pursuit of loose balls. Her ability to sweep the ball out of the air, even when matched up with Notre Dame 5-foot-10 freshman defender Barbara Sullivan, saved the day for Northwestern.

"It's all kind of about quickness up there," Leonard said. "There's not really much thought. It's just I see the ball and I go and kind of hope for the best up there."

After Notre Dame fell victim to a 12-goal first half outpouring the first time these two teams met this season, the Fighting Irish were much more solid on defense this time around.

"We were really, really quick to slide to doubles the first time around, and this time, we gave some extra effort on our one-on-ones, which was very important," Notre Dame coach Christine Halfpenny said. "We certainly packed our defense in, something that we haven't really done all year long, but we saw that it was pretty effective against them in other games. We know it's effective even against our team. We like pressure. When you pack it in against a team that likes pressure, sometimes they'll struggle to find some openings so we certainly made that change."

In fact, the two teams remained tied at three with less than two minutes remaining in the first half. That was when senior attacker Shannon Smith, tightly guarded all afternoon long, finally struck. Her goal was followed a minute later by a beautiful play from Kat DeRonda. The sophomore midfielder, situated about 15 feet out, darted a quick pass to her left to junior attacker Erin Fitzgerald, who tilted her stick downward and fired away.

Fitzgerald scored again to open the second half, after she was fouled on a cut to the net, and sunk her free-position shot into the right corner pocket to give the Wildcats a three-goal lead.

Northwestern's high-pressure defense delivered strong results. After a few slips early, including a play in which freshman midfielder Caitlin Gargan took a free-position from near the midfield line and somehow ran it all the way into the fan for the goal, the Wildcats bore down late. With the Fighting Irish still clinging tight after the intermission, trailing just 7-5, Northwestern held Notre Dame off the scoreboard for morethan 13 minutes, allowing the Wildcats to build a 10-5 lead.

"We usually always play a very high-pressured game," Northwestern junior defender and Tewaaraton Award finalist Taylor Thornton said. "We just like to take risks and chances and we thought that we could handle them with that kind of pressure and it really paid off today."

Fitzgerald led the way for the Wildcats with a hat trick, playing a pivotal role in her team's early offense. She scored three of Northwestern's first six goals, two of them off free-position opportunities.

"Shannon had the ball behind and she was getting a lot of pressure on her and she was doing really well keeping her feet moving," Fitzgerald said. "She had her head up a lot and there was just a lot of movement on attack and everyone else was drawing defenders and I happened to be the open girl on the cut."

Smith finished with a goal and two assists. After she flubbed several passes and took several wild shots early, Smith calmed down late. On perhaps her most spectacular play of the day, Smith took a free-position and found a well-guarded Jessica Russo on the left side of the cage with a perfect pass, and the senior midfielder fired it into the right side of the net to beat the keeper.

Still, it was a tough day for Smith. In the second half, two of her patented moves, a roller and a wraparound, failed as she pulled into a bevy of traffic. On one such play, the senior attacker ended up on the ground.

Maggie Tamasitis led Notre Dame with three points, on a goal and two assists. Her lone goal gave the Fighting Irish their only lead of the day, as she came around from behind the net to put Notre Dame up 2-1 midway through the first half.

Senior goalkeeper Brianne LoMonto finished with five saves for the Wildcats, including a couple of key saves by her midsection to perserve a tight game in the first half.

"Sometimes when you're pressured so much, you rush your shots and Breezy was able to really come up with the saves," Amonte Hiller said. "That was huge for us. When you're putting yourself out there defensively and you're getting tired and your goalie can kind of step up and be that rock for you, it's definitely really helpful."

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