April 6, 2014

Northwestern Stifles Penn For Third Top 20 Win This Week

by Justin Feil | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

Bridget Bianco and the Northwestern defense helped the Wildcats capture a third Top 20 win this week. (Cecil Copeland)

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PHILADELPHIA – Northwestern goalie Bridget Bianco saved Penn's first shot of the day from Lely DeSimone, something that's become a habit this week.

"We've just been coming in and trying to make the first stop immediately, not letting them score or feel like they're in control," said Bianco, the reigning American Lacrosse Conference Defensive Player of the Week. "We're trying to control their attack. For the past couple games, we've been able to do that.

"My defense is doing a great job forcing the shots that I want to see so I can make those saves. So it's totally a credit to a whole team effort and the preparation we've been doing."

Bianco recorded eight saves, Northwestern held Penn without a goal for almost 35 minutes and Kat DeRonda had two goals and two assists for the Wildcats (8-3), who remained perfect against its third Top 20 opponent in a week with a 7-2 win over Penn (6-3) at Franklin Field on Sunday.

"I think we struggled a little in the first half then started to get a little better momentum," said Northwestern head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller. "I think it's a great weekend for us. It's a tough road trip and I'm proud of the way the girls played."

Bianco saved a golden chance by No. 1 North Carolina to start their game Monday. She did the same Friday in what became a driving rainstorm at No. 15 Penn State, and then came up big early against at Penn.

"It gets me going," Bianco said, "but I think in my mind I'm like, I need to make the first stop so the defense knows I've got your back. And then our attack knows, if we turn the ball over their goalie makes a great save, our defense has our back and they're going to make a save so we have an opportunity to score. It's a chain reaction to being successful these last couple games."

Over its last three games, Northwestern has scored just 19 combined goals. It has won them all and four straight after losing three of the four goals to precede its win streak.

"Defensively, we've been playing really well," Hiller said. "Offensively, we're trying to find our groove. We haven't shot very well, especially the last couple games. Just sorting that out is going to be key and I think you'll see us put some more points on the board, but a 7-2 win, we'll take that."

Penn actually jumped out to a 1-0 lead only 2:16 into the game on a goal by Sarah Barcia. The Quakers wouldn't score another goal for another 34:21, after five Northwestern goals.

"I think if we had taken care of the ball and really worked them in the first couple possessions and not gotten behind, it would have been a different game," said Penn head coach Karin Brower Corbett. "They tend to sit on the ball when they get the lead and that's tough."

Northwestern's Kaleigh Craig tied the game, 1-1, almost midway through the first half, then DeRonda sent a rocket from deep over Penn goalie Lucy Ferguson's shoulder to give the Wildcats the lead.

"They put a lot of pressure on us," DeRonda said. "We wanted to focus on controlling ourselves and controlling the tempo of the game. Keeping possession has been a focus of ours the last couple weeks and just controlling the ball."

It was all the easier with career NCAA draw controls leader Alyssa Leonard doing her thing. She won the final four draws of the first half and lost only once in the second half for a 9-2 draw control edge for Northwestern.

"Everyone that is on our draw team puts in so much work outside of practice, and I think that extra time is paying off and we're seeing it in games," DeRonda said. "It's helping us tremendously to win."

Ferguson and the Penn defense kept things close, but Craig scored again with 1:18 left in the first half, then DeRonda scored her second goal 1:04 into the second half. The senior midfielder hasn't scored more than 12 goals in a season, but already has 18 this year, third most on Northwestern.

"She's gotten really focused down this last stretch and really applied herself," Hiller said. "I think she's playing well. We're definitely going to need her to continue. She's very dynamic physically. She can dodge, she can pass, she can do everything. We definitely need her to continue to play well."

Barely a minute after her goal, DeRonda found a wide open Leonard on the crease after Ferguson came out from the cage for another Northwestern goal.

"Our attack is doing a great job of having long possessions and looking for that 100 percent shot so we can make sure we have a goal," Bianco said. "That might take a little longer. As long as we're still focused and locked in, and keeping our legs going, I think we should be fine going on from here on out."

Northwestern has played six games decided by two goals or fewer. They have won four of them, including two this week.

"I think they know how to play in one-goal games, that's for sure," Hiller said. "We've come out on top in a lot of one-goal games. We're learning how to make it more than one goal too. The last couple games have been a huge confidence boost for the girls."

The three-goal lead looked insurmountable with Northwestern controlling every draw, massaging the ball on offense and Bianco turning away almost every Penn shot, though they were few and far between Sunday. Penn only got five shots in the second half to Northwestern's 10.

"I don't think they have as many threats as they've had in the past, so their strategy is to have ball control," Corbett said. "That's how they're going to win these games. You better get the lead. If you don't get the lead, it's tough. That's the big thing."

DeSimone scored Penn's second goal of the game, but the Quakers weren't patient enough with their next chance, and Northwestern controlled the final 20 minutes. Christy Turner and Kara Mupo scored goals to pad Northwestern's lead.

"I think the girls have a lot more confidence now," Hiller said. "To drop one to Notre Dame was tough, and then to go down to Ohio State, they always play us tough. Conference opponents, it's anyone's ballgame. You've seen that in every conference. Teams are playing close and there's a lot of emotion that goes into conference play."

Northwestern returns to ALC play with three straight at home beginning with Vanderbilt visiting on Thursday, followed by Johns Hopkins and Florida. Northwestern will also host the ALC tournament, and they've shown over a recent stretch that they can win without a high-scoring attack thanks to a stifling defense.

"We have to think it's not always going to be this way," Bianco said. "Teams do come out with different game plans. We might be challenged in different ways. They may score more than four or five goals, and we can't let that get us down from here on out. Just because we've been holding them low doesn't mean it's always going to be low from here on out."

NOTES: Penn opened the game against Northwestern with its three active captains Tory Bensen, Allie Martin and Lindsey Smith on the bench for the first 10 minutes. The Daily Pennsylvanian reported that members of the women's lacrosse team had been involved in an off-field incident at a downtown Philadelphia bar.

"It's been a tough week," Corbett said. "I feel that as a team, we put ourselves in not a great position. The general manager of the bar sent an e-mail retraction to me and some officials on campus saying that he cannot say that our girls did anything. They were there but it was a packed bar and he can't attribute any of it to us.

"It's really unfortunate that our school paper did what they did without finding out facts. It's a tough road. People are going to think what they think, but I know what this program stands for, who my kids are. Yes, they were out that night in a packed bar. They didn't break any rules, they didn't ruin any bar, and he said that. We do have to build a lot of trust back and be the team we've always been and behave ourselves. Our captains, they are the leaders of our team, and we're going to move forward and learn from this."

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