March 30, 2013

Northwestern Turns Draw, Rallies Past Syracuse

by Jonah Rosenblum | | Live Blog Replay | Video: Big Ten Network Recap

Northwestern cleaned up its draw control game late and held Syracuse scoreless for the final 11:37 to secure a 13-12 win in Saturday's national title game rematch.
© Anne Ryan

EVANSTON, Ill. - Northwestern’s lacrosse dynasty has largely been built around the draw control. Thus, when Syracuse won 11 of 13 draw controls in the first half, Northwestern’s draw control extraordinaire Alyssa Leonard took it to heart, according to her coach.

“She’s an incredibly competitive athlete,” Kelly Amonte Hiller said. “She just really took it personally. That’s what we talked about at halftime, that’s what we talked about at the television timeouts, we have got to fight harder for these draw controls.”

Leonard responded with a couple of key draw controls in the closing minutes, and Northwestern held Syracuse off of the scoreboard for the final 11:37 to secure a 13-12 victory in Saturday’s rematch of last year’s national championship game, also won by the Wildcats.

For most of the first 40 minutes, Syracuse was able to limit Leonard by keeping her from popping the ball in the air.

“Kailah Kempney and Kirkland Locey did a really good job of getting on her arms,” Syracuse junior attacker Alyssa Murray said. “We know that she likes to pop it up really high and just jump it over the center. What we tried to do is get it to be a 50-50 ball. If there was any way to make the ball hit the ground, we were going to be ready for it.”

On her final couple of draw controls, however, Leonard was able to toss the ball skywards and then use her athleticism to snare the jump ball. With Northwestern suddenly controlling possession, senior defender Taylor Thornton was able to knot the game at 12 on a free-position shot and Leonard was able to knock home the game-winner with 6:09 to go off a beautiful pass by senior midfielder Amanda Macaluso.

“She just dug deep and she’s a competitor and she wanted to win this game and she helped us big time win it,” Amonte Hiller said.

Early on, it was Syracuse controlling the contest, however, storming out to a 4-1 lead with the help of rapid ball movement and two goals by junior midfielder Katie Webster. In these difficult early moments for Northwestern, senior midfielder Ali Cassera, who entered Saturday’s game with just 10 goals, managed to keep them alive with a series of goals.

“Whenever our top players are being locked up, it’s important for everyone to step up,” Cassera said. “That just opened up looks for me in the inside.”

Meanwhile, sophomore goalkeeper Bridget Bianco stuffed the five-hole perfectly with five saves in the first half and eight saves overall.

“We just had to make adjustments because we knew she likes to collapse to the ground when we shoot,” Murray said. “So we just changed what we were doing towards the middle to end of the game and just rather than shooting low, we were hitch faking low and putting it up top or doing high bouncers because that way she would collapse and then it would go over her shoulders.”

Bianco also snared a number of loose balls in front of the net when Syracuse controlled possession early.

“She never ceases to amaze me,” Cassera said.

Afterwards, Orange coach Gary Gait lamented his team’s inability to put the ball past Bianco.

“We had some great high-quality shots and we didn’t finish on them and we missed some easy passes,” Gait said. “I just tried to tell everyone on our team that you just got to relax a little more and understand that even though it’s a big game, it’s just a game. Catch the ball and finish it.”

With Northwestern trailing 7-5 early in the second period, Cassera spun through the crease like a figure skater to set a career high with five goals and put the Wildcats within one.

“I guess that’s my little go-to move apparently,” Cassera said. “That’s what my teammates tell me.”

Northwestern would win seven of the last 11 draw controls to tip the game in its favor.

And with Saturday’s close contest, a rivalry continued to dawn on the shore of Lake Michigan.

Though Northwestern has now defeated Syracuse on 11 consecutive occasions, the past three have been remarkably tight: an 11-9 overtime Northwestern victory at the Carrier Dome, an 8-6 Wildcats win in last year’s national title game and Saturday’s 13-12 victory for Northwestern at Lakeside Field.

“We’ve established a good rivalry between these teams,” Murray said. “Any time you play a team that has a history of being great, you really want to step up.”

In all three contests, Northwestern trailed early yet won the game. That’s no unusual feat for the Wildcats, who also rallied to defeat Ohio State earlier this week, and are 14-3 in games decided by two goals or fewer since the beginning of 2011.

“We stayed positive. That’s the most important thing is just staying positive and pushing through it,” Cassera said. “We’ve gotten ourselves into a couple of close games and we work well under pressure. We’re prepared for that definitely.”

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