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No. 9 Maryland women’s lacrosse weekend preview: No. 3 Northwestern

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A huge road trip awaits the Terrapins off the heels of a five-game win streak.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics

The top two teams in the Big Ten will square off this weekend as the No. 9 Maryland women’s lacrosse team travels to Evanston, Illinois, to go up against the No. 3 Northwestern Wildcats.

This conference-only schedule has taken away some traditional marquee opponents for the Terrapins such as Syracuse and North Carolina — the two top teams in the country according to Inside Lacrosse. With that in mind, this crucial two-game series against Northwestern could be a statement for the Terps on a national scale.

“No matter who’s ranked higher it’s always a tough one,” head coach Cathy Reese said. “Our two teams are very familiar with each other both have had extreme success, and we have a lot of respect for them and love the competition that we know we’re heading into.”

Maryland is currently riding a five-game winning streak after starting 0-1. Led by defender Lizzie Colson — who earned IWLCA National Defensive Player of the Week honors this past week — the Terps shut down Ohio State last weekend, allowing just 14 goals over two games.

“I think every game we’re just getting better and it’s translating from practice to games,” Colson said. “We’re getting more comfortable with the young defense and new defensive lineup.”

The highly-anticipated showdown between the Terrapins and Wildcats is nearly two years in the making, with their last contest on May 24, 2019 being a 25-13 route by Maryland in the national semifinal. The Terps went on to secure its 14th NCAA National Championship, so revenge will certainly be on the mind of the Wildcats.

Game one on Saturday will be streamed on BTN Plus at noon, while the second leg of the series will be played on Monday at 1 p.m. on the Big Ten Network.

Northwestern Wildcats (7-0 Big Ten)

2020 record: 4-3

Head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller has built her own dynasty in the Big Ten. Her seven national titles accompany an unbelievable ten straight national semifinal appearances from 2005 to 2014, including eight straight title game berths. In addition, her 42-8 (.840) record in the NCAA Tournament makes Amonte Hiller the winningest coach in tournament history.

She has coached five Tewaaraton Award winners and has bolstered 48 IWLCA All-Americans over her tenure, building a rare Midwestern powerhouse in the sport of lacrosse. Amonte Hiller earned her 300th win against Stanford during the abbreviated 2020 season, just the eighth Division I coach to do so and has already begun to build towards 400 with a dominant 7-0 start to year 17 in Evanston.

Players to know

Junior attacker Izzy Scane (No. 27) — There is no shortage of standout players on this Northwestern roster, but the cream of the crop is the junior from Clarkston, Michigan. Since stepping on campus, Scane has been one of the top goal scorers for an efficient Wildcat team. The potential for a Tewaaraton-caliber breakout was put on pause in an abbreviated 2020 season, but thus far this year, she has continued to be a menace on the field. Her counting stats go past Northwestern leaders, as she leads the Big Ten in goals per game (6), points per game (7.57) and shots per game (11.43).

Senior attacker Lauren Gilbert (No. 1) — The second-best offense in the country (behind a Duquesne team that scored 22 goals in one game) can’t be led by a single player. That’s where Gilbert comes in, forming a formidable offensive duo for the Wildcats. Gilbert has been tremendously efficient this year, scoring 35 goals on a .565 conversion rate. The senior does most of her damage at the free position, scoring 14 this season on 16 attempts. Gilbert is also a steady presence in the draw department, placing second on the team with 29.

Senior midfielder Brennan Dwyer (No. 33) — No offense is successful by itself. The defense and the midfield are the glue that keeps Northwestern at the top of the Big Ten. Enter Dwyer, a senior from Winnetka, Illinois. Dwyer is second in the conference in draw controls per game with 7.86, being a huge piece in taking control of the offense on 50/50 chances. A 2020 Third Team All-American and 2019 All-Big Ten Team recipient, Dwyer has been a key cog in the Wildcat starting lineup.

Strength

Dominating on offense. Northwestern’s offense is its bread and butter. Averaging 20.29 a game, good for second across Division I, the Wildcats have punished opponents with its relentless attack. A ridiculous 10.7+/- is aided by a .524 shot percentage, making them not just a high octane offense, but an efficient one at that.

Weakness

Forcing turnovers. There’s not much to nitpick about Northwestern this season, and while their defense is a force thanks to goalkeeper Madison Doucette, among others, they are behind Maryland in causing turnovers. A 9.29 per game average is good for third in the Big Ten, which is a rarity for this team as they are atop the conference in nearly every category.

Three things to watch

1. Who will control the tempo? Maryland runs a methodical pace and lets their defense do the talking, while Northwestern pummels opponents with a persistent offensive attack. The two sides will collide and whoever takes over the tempo of the game should be in the driver’s seat.

“We need to focus on our group playing as together as possible and making sure that we’re getting double teams where we need to be, making sure slides are coming, and trying to set our goalie up to be in the position where she can make saves,” Reese said. “This is a team where there’s just not an easy simple solution because they’re all so dangerous.”

That toss-up will be decided on the draw circle, with Dwyer and Colson as their respective teams’ main contributor in taking over possessions. It’s a classic showdown of varied styles of play, and the draw figures to be the key to which style prevails.

2. Can Hannah Leubecker keep up her torrid pace? Despite the offensive struggles for the Terps, the sophomore has been Maryland’s juggernaut. She has totaled 28 goals on the season, far and above the highest mark on the team. The amazing part about that statistic is that Leubecker has played just 12 career games. Now, her biggest challenge to date stands before her, playing a red hot Northwestern squad. Can she keep up her 4.67 goals per game average? Or will the Wildcats keep her under wraps?

3. Will Maryland make the leap on offense? The Terps’ season thus far has been defined by the game-changing defense and less than admirable offense. Long scoring droughts have allowed opposing teams to stay in games, but fortunately for the 5-1 Terrapins, they have been able to hold off any swings by the opposition. Against Northwestern, however, that stingy defense will be given more cards to handle.

To counter the Wildcats' strong offense, Maryland will have to flip the switch themselves to stay neck and neck with a team that will more than likely find the back of the net frequently, regardless of how good a defense is.

“We’re creating opportunities, we definitely want to continue with that and even get more looks, but I think right now we’re just trying to focus on finishing those opportunities that we’re getting,” Leubecker said. “I feel like we’re so close ... That’s the next level for us and we’re just excited to keep working towards that.”