April 19, 2014

Florida Hangs on to Top Northwestern, Win ALC Crown

by Josh Walfish | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

In-Game Blog Replay


Florida jumped to a big early lead, but Northwestern clawed back by face-guarding Gators' leading scorer Shannon Gilroy. (Anne Ryan)

EVANSTON,Ill. – The plan was to get the ball into Mary-Sean Wilcox's stick.

With 30 seconds to go, No. 4 Florida held the ball and a precarious 13-12 lead over No. 7 Northwestern. Out of a timeout, the Gators began to retreat into their defensive zone with the idea of running out the clock with the ball nestled into their sophomore goalie's stick.

However, sophomore defender Sydney DuPre stepped out of bounds under the Wildcats' relentless pressure and Northwestern had a chance to tie the game with 16 seconds left. Senior attacker Kara Mupo was almost the heroine, but she stepped in the crease as her shot hit the cage and the tying goal was waved off, giving Florida the outright ALC title and the No. 1 seed in the upcoming tournament with a 13-12 victory over the Wildcats on the road.

"I believe Sydney felt pressured to make that pass [to Wilcox] and wasn't sure she could do it and tried to outrun them and got lucky [Mupo] stepped in the crease," Florida coach Amanda O'Leary said. "[Northwestern is] a team that never gives up. ... You can never feel safe against a team like Northwestern because they're such competitors and such hard workers."

The Gators (15-2, 6-0 ALC) got off to a fast start, peppering Northwestern goalie Bridget Bianco with 10 shots before the Wildcats (9-5, 3-3) had one. Florida maintained a 5-1 lead and looked so dominant that the 22-4 beatdown Florida administered to Northwestern last season was in the realm of possibility.

However, the Wildcats fought back and used their mastery of the draw control to slow down the pace of the game and creep back into contention at 5-4. It was the same strategy that allowed Northwestern to make its final comeback, one that ultimately fell short.

O'Leary admitted she was shocked her team only lost the draw control battle 17-10 because it felt like senior midfielder Alyssa Leonard was grabbing every draw control in sight. After collecting nine of the 12 draws in the first half, Northwestern only won eight of the 15 in the second half, although it collected the most important ones at the end of the game.

"We threw everything at Alyssa," O'Leary said. "I'm really surprised the draw control numbers were what they are because it didn't feel like that."

Sammi Burgess was the star of the game for the Gators, scoring four goals and adding an assist for a game-high five points. The freshman stepped up in place of junior Shannon Gilroy, who was limited to two goals by the face-guarding abilities of senior defender Kerri Harrington.

Burgess said she doesn't feel the pressure of picking up the slack from Gilroy when she's having an off-day, rather she sees it as a team responsibility to support its leader.

"We worked all week on playing with her in a faceguard," Burgess said. "That's where the rest of us have to step up and make an impact and play with confidence, knowing we're here too, we're here for a reason, we're good enough to be on the field."

Northwestern's biggest problem was the constricting pressure Florida applied to them in the midfield and defensive third. The Wildcats were only 3-of-7 on clears and had 13 turnovers including several which gave the Gators uncontested looks on goal.

The credit goes to the Florida midfielders who played all 60 minutes and continued to battle and force turnovers in the defensive zone until the final minute. O'Leary herself was also fairly complimentary.

"We ask a lot out of our midfielders," the coach said. "They're a well-seasoned group and I thought they played really well through the midfield and into the offensive end and just really pleased with them on the defensive end."

The Gators now have two weeks off before they return to Evanston for the ALC Tournament. Meanwhile, Northwestern heads to historic Wrigley Field to play Southern California next Saturday night to close out its regular season.

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