The better the opponent, the sweeter the win. That’s exactly what Northwestern lacrosse learned after defeating No. 1 UNC 7-5 Monday, snapping a 15-game winning streak that dated back to last season.
Against a “potent” offense, as head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller called it, Northwestern’s attack was slow and methodical, chewing up chunks of clock and often finishing with a goal.
“Any time we play, we’ve been working on playing smarter,” Amonte Hiller said. “I think earlier in the year, lack of smarts kind of plagued us and we’ve been working quite a lot on it.”
Northwestern’s spring break over the past week helped the team work out the kinks from earlier in the season and “only focus on lacrosse,” according to junior goalie Bridget Bianco. Coming into Monday’s game, the Wildcats were 5-3, with losses to then-No. 13 Notre Dame, Ohio State and No. 3 Syracuse. Of course, it was less than a year ago that UNC defeated Northwestern in the Final Four, ending the 'Cats' chances of a three-peat.
But on Monday, Northwestern seemed to “keep it together,” she said. Senior Alyssa Leonard led the attack for Northwestern, scoring three goals and notching one assist in the first half. Leonard’s third goal was a diving toss into the back of the net off a ground ball pickup with only six seconds left in the half. The third overall leader in draw controls netted three against the Tar Heel midfield, despite junior defender Sarah Scott of UNC grabbing four of the first five draws.
“Alyssa is no stranger to big games and she thrives on this type of environment, so we know we can always count on her,” Amonte Hiller said.
But perhaps even more vital was Northwestern’s defense, which held an offense that scores an average of 18.45 goals per game to only five.
“Contain. Play body. No swinging,” Bianco said of the team’s defensive philosophy.
Junior Kerri Harrington face-guarded one of North Carolina’s top scorers, sophomore Aly Messinger, effectively shutting her down, while junior Hayden Anigian marked up with senior attacker Abbey Friend. Messinger had zero stats in her column when time ran out at Lakeside Field.
UNC is a team that averages 10.8 goals in the first half, so Northwestern holding the Tar Heels to only two goals in this first half was more than just impressive. Bianco had three acrobatic saves in the first half to keep the attack at bay, despite Friend’s two shots on goal. In the second half, Bianco had three saves to Tar Heel Caylee Waters’ zero.
“We’re taking this win and, trust me, we’re gonna enjoy it,” Bianco said.
- Kaleigh Craig on offense: Craig gives her Wildcats a huge advantage whenever she's on the field. She added two goals to Northwestern's total and is the leading scorer for the 'Cats with 19 goals and three assists on the season. She may be just a sophomore but she is poised to step up when NU's talented group of seniors graduate at the end of the season.
- Bridget Bianco's saves: The junior goalie had six saves Monday and only allowed five goals. On the season, Bianco is averaging just over seven saves per game, while facing 174 shots against her. She said she went into the game thinking "You have to make the first save. If you don’t make the first save, then they’re gonna think they’re in your head." That mental toughness and commanding presence on defense is epitomized by the phrase "Calm is contagious," which is written on the back of her helmet and on a piece of tape wrapped around her wrist.
- Kerri Harrington's face-guarding: Highly regarded as a face-guarding specialist, she proved her worth Monday by completely shutting down Aly Messinger of UNC. Messinger has 33 goals and 11 assists in the 2014 season, taking 61 shots on goal. Yet against Harrington and the NU defense, she had no stats to speak of.
- Turnovers and ground balls in the second half: In the second half, tensions rose as Northwestern continually found ways to stop UNC's top-ranked offense from scoring. Naturally, sticks started swinging and the competition grew heated. Both offenses traded the ball back and forth, garnering 15 total ground balls in the second half alone. By the end of the game, Northwestern had 11 turnovers and UNC had nine. No one said it wasn't a messy win.
- UNC's yellow cards: With time expiring in the first half, the UNC bench was given a yellow card after Leonard's last-second goal. The bench was given another yellow card with 2:38 left to play in the game. In both of these cases, North Carolina had to remove a player from the field even though she did not receive the card personally, forcing UNC to play down a player both times. Freshman Carly Reed, who had a goal for UNC, and senior Abbey Friend each got yellow cards in the second half, as well. Friend's card seemed worse, as it seemed to be given after she traded words with a referee. As a senior on a winning team, she should have known better.