Gone are the days when Northwestern could blow out a seemingly lesser team by double-digits. This is the NCAA tournament and, as head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller likes to say, it’s anyone’s game any given day.
The Northwestern Wildcats and the Louisville Cardinals traded goals throughout the entire game, but Northwestern finally gained the upper hand and defeated the Cardinals 11-8.
Louisville came into the game ranked 23rd at the end of the season, while Northwestern was ranked fifth, earning a first-round bye in the NCAA tournament. However, an 18-point difference didn’t faze the Cardinals, who jumped out to an early 3-1 lead courtesy of a hat trick from sophomore midfielder Cortnee Daley.
Northwestern’s own attack got off to a slow start in the first half, perhaps because of the quiet game from the ‘Cats’ home run hitters. None of the top five active scorers had any points on the board in the first half. Junior midfielder Jess Carroll scored two goals while freshman defender Sheila Nesselbush and sophomore attacker Lauren Murray each added one, as well.
Nesselbush’s goal was particularly impressive, as she prevented a turnover and ran the ball in for a goal, signaling a mental shift for the ‘Cats. Senior defender Kerri Harrington said Nesselbuch showed a “ton of confidence from a freshman.”
“We take pride in our scrappy goals,” Harrington said.
Combined, those three players only had 11 goals this year before today’s game.
“When you have seven players out there who can score, it makes us that [much] more of a weapon,” redshirt junior Kara Mupo said.
To prove it, in the first eight minutes of the second half the ‘Cats came out of the locker room with a vengeance, scoring four unanswered goals. Mupo got her first two goals of the game only 10 seconds apart, with senior Alyssa Leonard scoring on the next possession, putting the ‘Cats up 7-5.
Mupo and Leonard, along with senior midfielder Christy Turner, would score the rest of Northwestern’s four goals. Leonard may not have scored right away, but she did dominate on the draw, winning 14 draw controls to Louisville’s seven.
While Northwestern’s top scorers eventually got some touches and goals, Louisville’s star attacker Nikki Boltja scored zero. She did have two assists, but for a player who ranks second in the nation in goals per game (3.72), it was an underperformance.
The ‘Cats have Harrington and their defense to thank for that.
“It’s my job to keep the ball out of her hands,” Harrington said, before praising her defense as a whole. “As a unit I think that we were really great at protecting our eight and that’s gonna be something we’re gonna focus on this week.”
All day, the defense came up with big stops to prevent Louisville from gaining back the momentum from the opening three minutes. Northwestern ended the day with 10 caused turnovers, two of which were Harrington’s, and junior goalie Bridget Bianco finished with six saves, five of which came in the second half.
Louisville’s high-pressure defense was a testament to how badly the Cardinals wanted a win, as well. They had eight caused turnovers and eight total saves between goalies Ashley Peacock and Ashley Herbst.
“I was so ready to be the team that wiped [Northwestern] off the map and I can’t wait to see them again,” sophomore midfielder Laura Patterson said.
At 12:59 p.m. today, the game against Louisville was Northwestern’s last guaranteed home game. Now that the ‘Cats will play the winner of No. 4 Florida-Denver May 17 or 18, the importance of each game is not lost on Northwestern’s players, least of all the seniors.
During an extended break while the referees discussed a yellow card with only 12 seconds left on the clock and four more goals than Louisville on the score board, Harrington gathered the field players into a huddle.
“We talk about playing for the moment,” she said. “We all took a deep breath and I looked at the seniors and I said, ‘Let’s enjoy this last 12 seconds.’ Who knows what the next round’s gonna bring, where we’ll be, but it was nice to take a deep breath, look at the setting and really soak it in. Hopefully we have a lot of lacrosse left, but let’s enjoy this day.”