What looked to be an extremely high-stakes, competitive matchup in the first half of play turned into a convincing victory for No. 1-seed Northwestern.
No. 2-seed Maryland women’s lacrosse had the opportunity to repeat as Big Ten champions, but faltered in the second half. In the first half, the Terps managed 18 shots and scored six times on a tough Northwestern back end.
Behind that strong second half, Northwestern pulled away for a 14-9 win and the Big Ten Tournament title.
“We’ll go into the NCAA Tournament and just take it one at a time,” head coach Cathy Reese said. “Our biggest challenge to overcome is ourselves. We’re going to keep getting better and we’re going to use this (loss) to fuel our fire.”
Maryland’s defense was calm and connected in the first minute, sticking to its respective assignments. But the Wildcats moved around nicely without the ball, creating space for graduate attacker Elle Hansen to dodge to the cage and score the game’s opening goal.
Maryland won the next draw control, and despite working the ball around well and earning a free position shot, the Terps were unable to match Northwestern’s early success on the offensive end.
On defense, Maryland clearly had a plan to slow down stalwart graduate attacker Izzy Scane. Every time she approached the eight-meter arc with the ball, the Terps sent a double team. Graduate defender Abby Bosco took on the primary assignment of the nation’s leading goal scorer and caused an early turnover.
A little more than halfway through the first frame, junior attacker Chrissy Thomas netted the first score for the Terps. Her 17th goal of the season, Thomas asserted her strength and quickness from behind the opposing cage to capitalize.
With about three minutes to play in the first quarter, senior attacker Libby May cut right across the goalmouth and rocketed a shot past the opposite side of Northwestern graduate goalkeeper Molly Laliberty.
In the first period, the Terps played with supreme pace. It forced the Wildcats to rush on offense and scramble on defense. Senior goalkeeper Emily Sterling made some key stops late in the frame. After one, the score was tied 2-2.
Within the first two minutes of the second quarter, the Terps took the lead. Senior attacker Hannah Leubecker did the honors, weaving and bending her way into the crease before firing a low shot past Laliberty.
Senior attacker Libby May then received a card, putting the Terps in a woman-down situation. Forced into playing zone defense, the Wildcats easily located the soft spot. Senior attacker Dylan Amonte was the beneficiary, tying the contest.
But May maintained pressure for Maryland, not hesitating when she received the ball at the 12-meter fan. With her explosiveness, she deftly dodged and split the defense en route to the score.
It was a back-and-forth series of events in the second period. Both squads made incredibly difficult scores. Amonte rifled a free position opportunity in the top corner, while Scane and Leubecker rocketed home contested shots from more than eight meters away from the net.
Northwestern led 7-6 at the half following a last-minute Scane goal.
The Wildcats carried the momentum into the third quarter, with senior attacker Erin Coykendall cashing in on an early free-position opportunity.
On Northwestern’s next possession, Sterling intercepted an ill-advised pass. It seemed to rejuvenate Maryland’s backend, which forced another turnover on the Wildcats’ next trip down.
The Terps had some offensive troubles of their own. Despite committing just two turnovers in the frame, their attack’s inability to create space for open shooters plagued them.
However, they kept up their physical play, drawing a number of Northwestern fouls. Eventually, freshman midfielder Kori Edmondson capitalized on a free position chance.
With about five minutes to play in the third frame, senior midfielder and draw control specialist Shaylan Ahearn limped off the field. Earlier in the game, she had appeared to aggravate her ankle, but pushed through the pain after having it taped. Sophomore midfielder Hailey Russo and junior midfielder Shannon Smith shared Ahearn’s duties until she returned midway through the fourth quarter.
“Shay (Ahearn) is phenomenal at (draw controls) and gives us that edge, but I think when I was going into it, it didn’t matter who was at the center circle. I was going to fight like hell to get that ball,” Bosco said.
The Terps’ energy slipped in Ahearn’s short absence, and the Wildcats continued to pile on the lead.
Graduate attacker Hailey Rhatigan, who had been mostly silent, capped off the frame with a late goal to bring the advantage to 11-8.
Northwestern was red-hot at the commencement of the final period, scoring twice in the first two minutes to extend its lead to five. For Maryland, the combination of rushed shots and superb saves from Laliberty left them scoreless on numerous offensive trips.
Maryland never quit, though. Leubecker’s score with eight minutes left highlighted the fight that the Terps still possessed. In fact, Maryland’s defense in the fourth quarter was commendable. But it wasn’t enough, as Northwestern chewed clock late and sealed the victory with an empty net goal.
Three things to know
1. Highly contested second quarter. The second frame was a competitive, high-scoring battle that resembled everything a championship game should. With 23 total shots, both offenses were absolutely relentless. It was also a mistake-free 15 minutes of lacrosse, as each program only committed one turnover.
The Terps won the first six draw controls of the quarter, but the Wildcats were victorious on the final four and took the lead in the process.
“I think our offense really held their own,” Reese said. “We competed really hard and this game should give us confidence heading into the postseason. We need to shoot better; our percentage needs to be better than it is.”
2. Shades of the previous contest. These teams battled it out two weeks ago, and the result was eerily similar. After a highly-competitive first half, Northwestern was able to create a significant amount of separation in the second half.
The final 30 minutes of the game Saturday was heavily tilted in the Wildcats’ favor. A huge component of this was the sheer amount of shots that the Wildcats fired. In the third frame, Northwestern’s offense took 12 shots, while the Terps had just five. Furthermore, Rhatigan came alive late. Its speed and skill was too much for Maryland’s defense to keep up with.
“All of [Northwestern’s] attackers are just very good shooters. They shoot (the ball) hard and they can put it where they want it,” Reese said. “They’re hard to stop. We put them on the (8-meter) too many times.”
3. Northwestern’s goalkeeper shined. Molly Laliberty, the former Tufts University standout, was tremendous in the cage for the Wildcats. Her 11 saves and .550 save percentage provided a huge boost of energy for Northwestern. The sideline cheers of her teammates were palpable as she stymied the Terps late into the fourth frame, preventing a comeback.
“She’s a good goalie and she was making some saves,” Reese said. “It was definitely a huge part of Northwestern’s win tonight.”