In a 15-7 rout of Penn State in the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals, Northwestern advanced to its ninth straight Final Four.
“I think people think it’s kind of automatic that we’re gonna go to the Final Four," Head Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said after the game. "But it’s very hard to get there."
This was the third meeting of the year between the two teams. The first game wasn’t even close: Northwestern got an 11-3 win. The ALC quarterfinal earlier this month, however, was a bit tougher. The game went into overtime, and Northwestern was just an Amanda Macaluso goal away from being knocked out of the ALC Tournament. This last matchup was much like the first.
“We came out from the first whistle, hard as we could,” senior midfielder Gabriella Flibotte said. “It was do or die.”
Although there was no score and only two shots on goal in the game’s first 10 minutes, once the 'Cats got started, they refused to stop.
In an impressive first-half performance, Northwestern scored five unanswered goals to start the half and only allowed three goals against its defense. Even after Penn State’s first goal, thanks to freshman midfielder Jenna Mosketti, Northwestern went on to score another six goals before Penn State would find the back of the net again.
Junior midfielder Alyssa Leonard took control of the first half and never looked back. Scoring four goals in the half, Leonard dominated the game all over the field.
“Everyone was cutting through hard, dodging hard and giving me the layup,” Leonard said. “So I was kinda doing the easy part and they were really working hard.”
Leonard grabbed two draw controls herself and helped her team to 13 draws in the first half. By the end of the game, Northwestern had won 17 draws to the Nittany Lions' seven. Despite the lop-sided advantage in Northwestern’s favor, Leonard still called the competition for the draw “a battle.”
Nine different Northwestern players scored on the team’s 15 total goals and two players got hat tricks. Senior Erin Fitzgerald, who had been largely denied points in the postseason, and Leonard combined for seven goals.
“It takes a lot of focus to be able to really put a team away,” Amonte Hiller said. “When you have them on the ropes, you gotta get that knockout punch. I think earlier in the year, we lacked that focus.”
Northwestern’s forced turnovers on Penn State’s offense prevented the Nittany Lions from ever gaining momentum. Penn State committed seven first half turnovers compared to Northwestern’s three.
“For defense, we just try to go at people as hard as we can and wreak havoc,” Flibotte said. “So if we come up with caused turnovers quickly, that’s great. If it takes a minute or two, that’s fine, too.”
Flibotte and senior midfielder Taylor Thornton led the way in interceptions and ground balls for Northwestern’s defense, which picked up nine total ground balls. Then Thornton got to show off her speed, running the ball from coast to coast more than once.
After going into halftime with a convincing 13-3 lead, Northwestern’s run slowed as it only scored two goals in the second half. With just under 10 minutes to play, Penn State scored four goals in a row to bring its total to seven.
Maryland, Syracuse and North Carolina had already punched their tickets to Philadelphia for the Final Four earlier in the day. Northwestern will face the Tar Heels, a team it previously lost to 11-8, on Friday.
“Redemption is sweet so we’re definitely looking to come at them hard,” Flibotte said.