Northwestern’s offense had been absolutely on fire, scoring an average of 17.5 goals over its last seven games. Throughout this season, the Wildcats’ strong offense and aggressive midfield play has made up for a subpar defense.
But Friday night, the roles were reversed, as the Wildcats turned in their best defensive performance of the season at a very important time.
On the strength of 15 caused turnovers, No. 3-seeded Northwestern lacrosse (10-8) toppled the No. 2-seeded Penn State Nittany Lions (11-6) 9-6 in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals under the lights in Evanston Friday night. The 15 caused turnovers matched a season high for the Wildcats, while the six goals were a season low for the Nittany Lions.
Penn State started strong, winning the first few draws and getting some offensive possession. But the Wildcats flexed their defensive muscle early, as freshman goaltender Mallory Weisse made three saves in the game’s first five minutes. And it was Northwestern that landed the first blow, as Danita Stroup scored twice in the opening seven minutes, assisted both times by Christina Esposito. Nancy Dunbar extended the lead to 3-0 with 19:56 left in the first half, shortly after a yellow card left the Nittany Lions down a man.
Just 20 seconds later, Penn State got on the board for the first time. But Northwestern stunted the Lions’ chances of gaining momentum by winning the ensuing draw and quickly generating a goal, which came off the stick of Kaleigh Craig at 18:32. A defensive miscue led to Penn State’s second goal, off the stick of their star attacker Madison Cyr, which cut the lead to 4-2 with 6:21 left in the period. But Northwestern again responded, as Selena Lasota won the following draw, charged down half the field, and whipped a shot past PSU goaltender Emi Smith to regain a three goal lead. The favored Nittany Lions would head into halftime trailing 5-2.
The ‘Cats picked up where they left off in period two. Shelby Fredericks won the draw and eventually found a cutting Leighton Yenor for the goal and a 6-2 lead not even two minutes in. After Madison Carter pulled one back for Penn State, Yenor returned the favor, finding Fredericks open in front of goal for the score with just over 20 minutes to play. Two minutes later, Craig struck again, spelling the end of the evening for Smith. The senior, the reigning Big Ten Goaltender of the Year, ended her night, and her career, with a .275 save percentage.
Her replacement, junior Cat Rainone, kept her team alive nearly single-handedly, making a trio of saves and allowing her offense to cut the lead to 8-5 with 12 minutes on the clock. But her effort was bested by that of Weisse. Penn State looked to be in prime position for a comeback following two consecutive Northwestern yellow cards, but Weisse stonewalled Steph Lazo’s free-position attempt, and her remaining teammates masterfully ran out the clock on the penalty, barely allowing the Nittany Lions to sniff the ball despite the fact that they had two fewer players on the field. Galvanized, Craig completed her hat trick with 2:38 remaining, effectively sealing the deal for the ‘Cats. A free-position goal from freshman Alexis Phillips with 1:11 left made things interesting, but Weisse, who denied Cyr twice in the final 45 seconds, preventing the senior from reaching the 50-goal mark, closed the door for good, sending the Wildcats into the Tournament final with a 9-6 victory.
Speaking of the final, the Wildcats will face a familiar foe in the two-time defending national champion Maryland Terrapins, which disposed of Rutgers Friday afternoon relatively easily. The ‘Cats and Terps met earlier this year in College Park, resulting in a 17-4 win for Maryland. But Northwestern, which has won three straight games and is coming off a victory over a legitimately good Penn State team, might stand a chance at taking down the Terrapins, thus ending their bid at an undefeated season. And, oh yeah, a win would also give Northwestern the Big Ten Tournament victory. They’ve already knocked off the reigning conference Tournament champs. Next up on Sunday at noon are the reigning national Tournament champs.
Hey. Stranger things have happened.