Women's lacrosse Final Four 2014: Previewing Maryland-Northwestern

Anthony Gruppuso-US PRESSWIRE

Maryland and Northwestern meet on championship weekend for the fourth time in the last five years. Here's an in depth look at what to expect from two traditional powers in women's lacrosse.

Could this be considered a rivalry game?

The last three times the Maryland Terrapins women's lacrosse team has played the Northwestern Wildcats the years were 2010, 2011, and 2012

The last three times the Maryland Terrapins women's lacrosse team has played the Northwestern Wildcats the scores were 13-11, 8-7, and 9-7.

The last three times the Maryland Terrapins women's lacrosse team has played the Northwestern Wildcats the winners were Maryland, Northwestern, and Northwestern.

The last three times the Maryland Terrapins women's lacrosse team has played the Northwestern Wildcats the games were the national championship game, the national championship game, and the national semifinal.

When the teams meet for the fourth time in five years on Friday, May 23 at Johnny Unitas Stadium on the campus of Towson University, it will again be on lacrosse's championship weekend and at stake will be the right to play for a National Championship. Here's a look at the match-up.

Northwestern

No stage fright

The Final Four is a familiar spot for the Wildcats. Friday will mark their tenth consecutive appearance on college lacrosse's ultimate stage. Thus, noting that Northwestern has an experienced roster with nine seniors is, while factual, not particularly important. With the exception of the eight freshman (including the two listed as redshirt freshmen) - none of whom have played a significant role this season - everyone has played on the final weekend and all of the juniors and seniors have played on a national championship squad.

Some chinks in the armor

Northwestern enters the weekend with a 14-6 record. The six losses are the most they have had in a season since 2003 when they finished 8-8. In the ten year span from 2004 to 2013, the Wildcats amassed a record of 202-15, had two undefeated seasons, and won seven NCAA Championships. They lost only six games in total over the six seasons from 2004 to 2009. Heading into this season, this year's senior class had lost a collective seven games so six losses in a single season must seem a bit shocking.

In conference play (Northwestern plays in the American Lacrosse Conference or ALC), the Wildcats finished 3-3. Each of the losses to Florida, Ohio State, and Johns Hopkins came by a single goal and two came in overtime. They also lost by identical 9-8 scores to Notre Dame and a second time to Florida in the ALC title game. Only Syracuse, who toppled them in the Carrier Dome by an 11-7 final has beaten the Wildcats by more than one goal.

A containment strategy

To reach the Final Four, Northwestern had to defeat two of the highest scoring teams in the NCAA - Louisville which averages over 14 per game and Florida which, at 15 goals per game, is the nation's second highest scoring team. Northwestern won the two games 11-8 and 12-11 in overtime. Their approach was to play a game of possession and containment.

The Wildcats attempted only 25 shots against Louisville and 26 in the overtime win at Florida while holding both opponents to 18 attempts. In a game with no shot clock of any kind, one key to applying this strategy is controlling the draw. Northwestern succeeded in this effort doubling up Louisville 14-7 and winning 16 of 27 against the Gators.

Against Louisville, Northwestern shut down the NCAA's most potent one-two scoring punch in Nikki Boltja and Faye Brust who each score over 3.5 times per game. The Wildcats held Boltja scoreless and Brust to two goals. The target against Florida was the nation's leading scorer, Shannon Gilroy, who averages over four goals per game but managed only three in the Gator's overtime loss.

Players to watch

The clear star for Northwestern is senior attacker Alyssa Leonard. Leonard leads the Wildcats with a superficially unimpressive forty goals. However, when her two goals per game average is placed in the framework of a team that scores only eleven and takes a mere twenty-three shots per game, that number becomes a bit more imposing.

Where Leonard is most impressive and effective, however, is in the draw circle. As a junior in 2013, she set a school record with 125 draw controls. She shattered that record in 2014 picking up 160 with at least one game remaining to play.

Over the second half of the season, junior Kara Mujo has emerged as the Wildcats' most effective number two scoring option. Mupo has 38 goals on the season and she scored three of Northwestern's four goals in the decisive second half stretch against Louisville.

Defensively, it's difficult to single out any individual player. However, the Wildcats' defense clearly functions well as a unit holding opponents to 8.4 goals and just 20 shots per game.

Maryland

No stage fright, the sequel

Okay, so Maryland's recent history doesn't quite match Northwestern's but the Terps are making their sixth consecutive journey to the site of the Final Four. There are some notable differences between the rosters, though. Maryland's five player senior class is roughly half the size of Northwestern's and the Terps get significant minutes from only two of those five, Beth Glaros and Jen Mendez. And, while the Wildcats haven't looked for much production from their freshmen class, the Terrapins regularly start two freshmen - Zoe Stukenberg on attack and Nadine Hadnagy in the defensive quarter. The other notable difference is that no one on Maryland's current roster can claim a championship ring.

Well armed

With a history even deeper than Northwestern's, Maryland can certainly be considered a blueblood program in women's lacrosse. The Terps own 11 national titles dating back to an AIAW crown in 1981 and winning the first of their 10 NCAA championships in 1986. In this run of six straight trips to the Final Four, Maryland has compiled a cumulative record of 126-10 (.926) and can claim one National Championship - a 13-11 come from behind win over Northwestern in 2010 in a game played at Johnny Unitas Stadium in Towson.

For the second consecutive year, the Terrapins earned the top seed in the NCAA Tournament. With a 22-1 overall record and 6-1 in the ACC, Maryland tied for the regular season championship and won their sixth consecutive ACC Tournament title. The Terps' lone loss came in early April when they dropped a 17-15 decision to North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Maryland is a multi-dimensional squad in many ways. Of the four teams still standing, the Terps are both the highest scoring (14.82) and stingiest defensive (7.86) squad. Though Syracuse also boasts two of the five Tewaaraton Trophy finalists, only Maryland has a defensive player on that list. Because the Wildcats don't attack the goal with the same ferocity as the Terrapins, it's difficult to compare the scoring balance between Friday's opponents but Maryland's top three goal scorers have combined for one more goal (173) than Northwestern's top six goal producers.

Little challenged

Befitting a team with a seven goals per game differential, the Terps have found themselves in very few close games this season and that has held true throughout the postseason as well. In the ACC Tournament, Maryland won by five, six, and six goal margins. They have yet to be truly challenged in the NCAA either. Although the Terrapins' first opponent, Penn had pulled within two goals with three and a half minutes to play in the first half, Maryland asserted their dominance and outscored the Quakers 7-1 over the game's final thirty-three and a half minutes to secure a comfortable 13-5 win. The second game against Duke followed a similar script. The Blue Devils scored with fifteen and a half minutes to play in the first half to creep within three. The Terps then pulled away to the 15-8 seven goal win.

Players to watch

So many players, so little space. When a team has three players approaching 60 goals and a fourth nearing 50 on offense that alone provides a plethora of potential material. Add in a defensive player, namely Megan Douty, who has performed so well that she's one of the five finalists for the Tewaaraton Award (think Jadeveon Clowney being a Heisman finalist) and the pool deepens.

I wrote a rapturous paragraph or so about Maryland's other Tewaaraton finalist, Taylor Cummings, that you can read here and I will come back to her later but for now let's take a look at Maryland's leading scorer, Kelly McPartland. The junior midfielder has scored 57 goals and leads the Terps with 31 assists. McPartland is often at her most dangerous when Maryland can isolate her between fifteen and twenty yards out. She has a quick burst that can get her inside most defenders and the field vision to spot an open teammate when the double team comes at her.

The Terrapins' other principal goal scorer is Brooke Griffin. Griffin, also a junior, is the player most likely to initiate Maryland's offense from behind the net. With 21 assists accompanying her 57 goals, she clearly presents a dual threat from that position.

Key to the game (1) - Ten is a dangerous number

The pace of play Will Likely be an important factor in Friday night's game. Northwestern generally prefers a game of long possessions and limited shot opportunities. The Wildcats have allowed 10 or more goals only seven times this season and have a record of 3-4 in those contests. They are 11-3 when their opponent fails to reach ten. So while ten may not be the most dangerous number that you'll ever do, it is one they don't want the Terps to see. The Terps have failed to reach 10 goals only once thus far this season - an 8-7 win at Princeton.

Key to the game (2) - Rear view mirror

The Wildcats have considerably more experience in close games than the Terrapins - thirteen of their twenty games have been decided by three goals or fewer while Maryland has played only five such contests with no other game being closer than a five goal spread. Northwestern is 8-5 in those tight matches while Maryland is 4-1. Maryland can obviously win close games. Still, opening a lead of three or more could push the Wildcats away from their preferred pace of play.

Key to the game (3) - Draw me a picture

What happens in the draw circle may be the ultimate deciding factor. Northwestern senior Alyssa Leonard is even more dominant in the draw circle than Maryland's Taylor Cummings. The Wildcats win the draw about 62 percent of the time holding a 269-167 edge in that area. With 160 draws, Leonard accounts for nearly three out of every five draws that Northwestern wins. Cummings plays a similar role for Maryland. The sophomore has 116 draw controls for the Terrapins contributing to Maryland's near two to one advantage. Cummings can be very effective using her height and stick skills to pick up many of her draws. However, Leonard has the size and experience to counter this tactic. Cummings may need to look to teammates Beth Glaros and Erin Collins who have combined to pick up 121 draws on the season to crash the circle and help neutralize Murray.

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