May 27, 2012

Northwestern Stifles Syracuse, Continues Reign as NCAA Champ

by Matt DaSilva | | Twitter

Northwestern senior attacker and tournament most outstanding player Shannon Smith hoists the NCAA championship trophy as confetti rains on her and teammates after the Wildcats' 8-6 win over Syracuse in the final Sunday.

© Lee Weissman

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STONY BROOK, N.Y. – When does a dynasty become an empire? When you reign long enough to be seen as a villain.

Northwestern eliminated postseason darling Syracuse with an 8-6 win Sunday in the NCAA Division I women's lacrosse championship game before 7,127 fans at Stony Brook's LaValle Stadium. Senior attacker and NCAA tournament most outstanding player Shannon Smith had two goals and two assists despite a persistent face guard from Orange defender Janelle Stegland, while Tewaaraton Award finalist Taylor Thornton added two goals for the Wildcats.

The victory gave Northwestern its seventh national championship in eight years. Head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller, the all-time winningest coach in NCAA tournament history, said this run was particularly sweet after the Wildcats had ended the regular season with a bitter May 5 loss to Florida in the American Lacrosse Conference championship game.

"I'm just really proud of how they came together from a low moment of losing the ALC championship to really reevaluating ourselves, working and coming together," said Amonte Hiller, who will be inducted into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame in the fall. "This could not be a more proud moment."

Northwestern's latest march to the championship came with a steady dose of boos, as the Wildcats spent much of the second half nursing their lead—content to hold the ball until Syracuse challenged them. Northwestern also used an effective stall to defeat Maryland 9-7 in the semifinals Friday.

"It's not great for TV, and it's not great for the growth of our game, but it's certainly a way to win championships," said Syracuse head coach Gary Gait.

Even as a vocal Syracuse contingent chanted in chorus, "This is boring," Northwestern demonstrated the poise and opportunism that has come to define their dominance of the college women's lacrosse landscape for the last decade.

"Our defense pressures out all year long, all game long. That's the best antidote to when someone tries to slow the game down," Amonte Hiller said. "I wouldn't necessarily categorize it as stalling."

The Wildcats could not have drawn up this latest victory any better — literally. They won 12 of 16 draw controls, with sophomore midfielder Alyssa Leonard (six draw controls) doing most of the damage in the circle and junior midfielder Gabriella Fiibotte (five) cleaning up on the outskirts.

Draws became a sticking point for Northwestern after that ALC championship game loss in which Florida outdrew the Wildcats 18-5.

An official issues Syracuse coach Gary Gait a yellow card late in the second half for leaving the bench area as he tries to explain he thought a timeout had been called. Gait was critical of the officiating afterward. "We felt like at times we were playing against a couple teams," he said.

© Lee Weissman

"I was most upset after the Florida about the draw controls. We have a tradition of very strong draws, and I felt like I was failing the team in not maintaining that," Amonte Hiller said. "Alyssa really took it to heart. She was on a mission to get better."

"Eighteen to five has been in the back of my head ever since," Leonard said. "We had it on the scoreboard in practice a couple times. That's when we decided I needed to step up for the team."

After Syracuse, making its first-ever appearance in an NCAA championship game, jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first four minutes, Northwestern controlled the next eight draws as part of a 6-2 run spanning the first and second halves.

The Orange swapped the taller Kirkland Locey for top draw specialist Kailah Kempney and scored two goals seven minutes apart to tie it at 6 with 11:08 remaining in the second half.

The equalizer came from Tewaaraton Award finalist Michelle Tumolo, her only shot and goal of the game. Tumolo was otherwise shut out (and visibly frustrated) by the face guard of Northwestern defender Kerri Harrington, who similarly stoned Maryland's Sarah Mollison in last year's NCAA final.

It didn't take long for the Wildcats to answer, as Thornton powered to the cage and sent a righty blast past Syracuse goalkeeper Alyssa Costantino (eight saves) just 73 seconds later for what proved to be the game-winning goal. Junior midfielder Erin Fitzgerald added an insurance goal, her second of the game, with 5:41 left to make it 8-6.

The wheels fell off for Syracuse with 3:22 remaining. After a Thornton foul set up a free position opportunity that could have pulled the Orange within one, Northwestern called for a stick check on Syracuse midfielder Sarah Holden. The stick was ruled illegal, the penalty offsetting the Thornton foul and resulting in a toss.

With all other players' sticks on the ground for the stick check, Gait left the sideline to lobby for a yellow card on Thornton thinking a timeout had been called. As he approached the middle of the field, the officials instead issued him a yellow card.

"I thought it was a timeout. The sticks were on the ground and the bench official didn't say anything," Gait said. "It was an error."

Tumolo drew a red card on top of that two minutes later, effectively ending any chance of another Syracuse comeback. The Orange had erased a seven-goal deficit to defeat Florida in Friday's semifinal, another game in which there was illegal stick intrigue. In that game, it was Syracuse that called for a stick check on Florida attacker Gabi Wiegand after she scored the apparent go-ahead goal in overtime. The Orange was successful in its challenge and went on to win in double overtime.

Gait criticized the officiating after the championship game Sunday.

"We felt like at times we were playing against a couple teams," he said. "Battling that second team makes it tough out there."

Asked to contextualize Northwestern's latest NCAA championship with the six others that preceded it, Amonte Hiller said, "My dad used to say you're only as good as your last game, and that's what I go by every game."

Considering the results, it's no wonder Amonte Hiller is headed to the Hall of Fame.

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