May 23, 2014

The Women's Final Four - Race to the Top

By Megan Schneider | | Twitter | May Madness Home

Northwestern will need to keep an eye on Maryland's Brooke Griffin feeding from behind the cage if the Wildcats want to advance to the championship game for the fourth time in the past five years. (John Strohsacker)

After a long season of trials and tribulations, today kicks off the Final Four matchups in the NCAA Women's Division I Lacrosse Tournament. Three of the four teams hail from the ACC and as Virginia coach Julie Myers said on Monday, "We've always thought that the ACC was good enough to lead the way, and this year, we've done a nice job of making that statement true."

The odd team out is Northwestern, an ALC team holding up in the conference's final year in existence. The Wildcats turn to face their future Big Ten opponent and top-seeded Maryland.

Without Maryland in 2015, the tradition of the ACC may change but Syracuse coach Gary Gait has recognized the impact the Terps have made, truly making it "a power conference" this year.

Will the title game be a rematch of the ACC tournament championship between Maryland and Syracuse? Or will Virginia come up with a big upset?

Three of the storylines to watch this weekend include the following: the depth of Syracuse's offense if faced with a faceguard on Kayla Treanor or Alyssa Murray; the clutch player for Virginia in Liza Blue overcoming injury and scoring five goals in the first two games in the NCAA Tournament; and the potency of each team's draw specialists including Maryland's Taylor Cummings, Syracuse's Kailah Kempney, Northwestern's Alyssa Leonard and Virginia's Courtney Swan.

Below are some thoughts to keep in mind as the games get underway this evening.

No. 2 Syracuse vs. No. 6 Virginia

Johnny Unitas Stadium, 5 p.m.

The opening game will be a classic ACC battle between Syracuse and Virginia, who both fell to Maryland in the ACC tournament.

In February, Syracuse downed Virginia 18-14 despite an equal playing field in the second half. Three months later, to many people's surprise, the Cavaliers earned the sixth seed and bye going into the NCAA Tournament, and have certainly proved their worth as they enter its first semifinal appearance since 2007.

"They've earned the right to be here and to enjoy it and to really look at it as a whole weekend experience," said Myers. "Obviously we need a win to be able to stay for the whole weekend, but it's really just how hard they've worked and how much they've come together in this opportunity that sits in front of them."

Key players for Virginia include the triple threat – Courtney Swan, Liza Blue and Casey Bocklett – who are the offensive leaders with 79, 65 and 60 points, respectively. Maddy Keeshan has also stepped up to the occasion improving as the season has gone on, including a two-goal performance in their 10-9 victory over North Carolina last weekend. Defensive leaders include Morgan Stephens and All-IWLCA first team goalie Liz Colgan.

Yet, the challenge for the Cavaliers will be Syracuse's offensive threats of Tewaaraton finalists Kayla Treanor and Alyssa Murray. However, Myers' focus seems to be more so on Treanor, looking to midfielder Morgan Stephens who switched to defense to up the ante. Stephens did the same thing last season during the final games of the year.

"I don't think we can effectively faceguard Kayla Treanor," said Myers. "I think she loves that. She loves to backdoor and really manipulate it and kind of embarrass the defender so we're going to try not to embarrass ourselves too much, but really, we're going to put our best defender on Kayla. She's going to be in a hard deny, not a faceguard, but she's really going to try to limit some of her touches. Then Morgan is great playing one-on-one defense and we're going to try not to slide too often so she doesn't become the playmaker out of that."

Syracuse has a lot of firsts this season, including being ranked No.1 after defeating North Carolina in April. But fifth-year senior Bridget Daley is the first player in Syracuse history to go to her fourth Final Four.

"As far as the senior group, we had a tough start our freshman year," said Gait. "We didn't make the playoffs and we responded from that and they were pretty disappointed. [That's] their big reason why we've been to our third Final Four in a row because they wanted it and missed the playoffs their first year. They don't want this ever to happen again."

After topping Boston College 11-9, the Orange will be riding their confidence in their fifth appearance during championship weekend in the last seven years. Virginia may be gelling in its postseason run, but Syracuse has certainly felt the chemistry for a little bit longer.

"It definitely gives us an edge," said Murray. "Maryland, Northwestern – they're also very seasoned. It's been a few years since UVA's been there so I think that's something we can take and hopefully use to our advantage."

Whether or not Treanor is faceguarded, she believes and trusts in the "talented seven" on her offense. But it all starts with the draw between Swan and Kailah Kempney, who have controlled 92 and 104, respectively. For Swan, the draw is a personal battle and she holds the responsibility for obtaining possession for her teammates.

No. 1 Maryland vs. No. 5 Northwestern

Johnny Unitas Stadium, 7:30 p.m.

Although these two teams are new opponents for the 2014 season, they are certainly familiar with each other in tournament play. In the 2012 NCAA semifinals, Northwestern topped Maryland 9-7, while the two years prior, they faced each other in the championship game.

The Wildcats took the crown in 2011 with an 8-7 win, while the Terps emerged victorious in 2010, downing Northwestern 13-11, which was coach Cathy Reese's first NCAA title. While she will be looking for her second, Northwestern coach Kelly Amonte Hiller is a veteran, winning seven NCAA titles thus far.

"It's kind of an interesting matchup because we don't play in the regular season so we haven't played them since the semifinals in 2012," said Reese. "You know that their team is going to be tough and come fighting and playing hard but other than that, that's really it... Our team, being that we don't compete, we don't know that much from each other so that's how we've been approaching it too. Let's do our thing. Let's focus on Maryland. Let's do us."

Despite the Terps saying they are focusing on themselves, Reese mentioned that Northwestern's "big guns" are Alyssa Leonard, Kara Mupo and Kat DeRonda, who top the charts in goals and points for the Wildcats with 40, 38 and 35 goals and 74, 72 and 70 points, respectively. With Tewaaraton finalist Megan Douty on defense, the Terps will be looking to shut them down.

Also in the midfield, a common theme for this weekend's games is the battle between draw specialists. Tewaaraton finalist Taylor Cummings has captured 116 draw controls for Maryland – a driving force to kickstart its offense and in obtaining possession. The same goes for Northwestern with Leonard in the center circle, controlling 160 draws this season.

"It's going to be a great battle," said Amonte Hiller. "Alyssa is really focused in on the draw. She has been all season. She practices hours on her skill and her technique as do the other people around her... [Meanwhile,] Taylor Cummings is a tremendous player. Maryland has a lot of other players around her that compliment her extremely well so it's going to be a great matchup to watch."

While Maryland has earned its 22nd Final Four appearance in its 30th NCAA Tournament after being named ACC champs for the sixth consecutive year, the Wildcats enter their 10th straight semifinal. Although Northwestern has been considered the underdog as the only non-ACC team with a subpar regular season, the girls just laugh at that statement, including goalie Bridget Bianco.

"I mean it is what it is," said Bianco. "People are going to talk and they can say whatever they want. We're not really listening. We have our own bubble, our own team, our own family, and really that's the only opinion that matters. I think that if everyone outside of that bubble wants to say that [we're the underdog], that's fine. They can say what they want to say but it's our game plan, our preparation, our heart and our attitude that is ultimately going to prove whether we are an underdog or not."

For revenge of the ALC title game, Northwestern finally defeated Florida in their third matchup of the year last weekend to earn them a spot in the Final Four. It was just one more hurdle for them to overcome.

"Obviously, it's been a tough road to get here and I'm very proud of the girls for putting themselves in this situation," said Amonte Hiller. "It does feel a little bit like the old days when we weren't expected to do much."

But Maryland will be using their loss to North Carolina in last year's NCAA championship to fuel them for this year's Final Four. Junior midfielder Kelly McPartland remembers it as clear as day. "Just don't take anything for granted," she said.

"Last year our seniors were super strong with three national players of the year," said Reese. "This year I have one starting senior in my lineup so technically we're young... Obviously the end was a heartbreaker but it was a great game.

"[This year,] I think in the beginning there's been a lot of questions. What was Maryland going to be like? How are you going to function without Katie Schwarzmann? You hear a lot of that stuff so for this group to pull it together the way that they did and earn the seed that they did in this tournament, to win the ACC championship, to be competing in the final four is something I'm proud of."

The Maryland-Northwestern rivalry is one that is always a treat for the fans when they face each other. Soon, it will become a regular occurrence at least once during the regular season next year in the Big Ten.

"It's a rivalry with a lot of respect, especially myself who played there," said Amonte Hiller. "I have a tremendous amount of respect for the University of Maryland and the coaching staff. I played with Cathy so I think it's very exciting."

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