For the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, the road to the NCAA lacrosse championship often starts in Evanston. Incidentally, it often ends here as well, just as it did Saturday at Lakeside Field when No. 2 Northwestern (18-2) defeated No. 8 Notre Dame (13-5) 12-7 in the 2012 NCAA Division I Women’s Lacrosse Tournament's first round.
For the fourth time in their last six NCAA tournament appearances, Notre Dame kicked off play in Evanston. The Irish are 2-12 all time against the Wildcats and winless in their last 12 contests.
Northwestern dominated Notre Dame in a 17-7 rout when the Irish came to Lakeside Field in late April, but Saturday’s game was markedly closer.
“I feel like our team progressively got better throughout the game,” said coach Kelly Amonte Hiller after the game. "I think any time it’s your last competition, both teams are going to put it all out there and at this point in the season, no team’s going to roll over and it’s going to be a battle to the end."
Neither Northwestern nor Notre Dame held a lead greater than one goal until the fleeting moments of the first period, due in part to a high pressure defense the ‘Cats pushed on Notre Dame in addition to the Irish’s ability to contain senior Shannon Smith, who entered the game just two goals away from breaking Northwestern’s all-time scoring record.
“I think they got rattled, I think we were sliding really well, better in the second half and I think that really translated,” said NU junior defender Taylor Thornton, a Tewaarton Award finalist. “We were coming up with big ground balls, getting back on attack, not letting them have as many second chance opportunities so I thought we did a pretty good job."
Notre Dame head coach Christine Halfpenny lauded her team’s ability to adapt and implement a new game plan in a short period of time. Halfpenny also noted that the tight defense the Irish’s Barbara Sullivan played on Smith was “clearly frustrating.”
While Smith was only able to score one goal, the attention she drew coupled with the ‘Cats’ ability to keep the offense moving opened up scoring opportunities for Erin Fitzgerald (two goals), Kara Mupo (one goal) and Thornton (one goal), who combined to give Northwestern a 5-3 lead going into the second half.
Fitzgerald scored her third goal of the game 1:26 into the second period on a free position shot after a hard foul to the face. After Notre Dame’s Margaret Smith scored 30 seconds later, Shannon Smith fed senior Jessica Russo as she was cutting uncontested to the goal. Russo’s goal gave Northwestern a 7-4 lead and, after Notre Dame’s Kaitlyn Brosco scored at the 22:19 mark, three straight Northwestern goals from sophomore Alyssa Leonard, Thornton and sophomore Amanda Macaluso put the game out of reach for the Irish. Senior Lacey Vigmostad notched two goals toward the end of the second period, leaving the score 12-7 in Northwestern’s favor as the final seconds of Notre Dame’s season ticked off the scoreboard at Lakeside Field.
15-5 – Northwestern’s draw controls compared to Notre Dame’s a week after losing in the same category to Florida 18-5. Alyssa Leonard led the ‘Cats with eight draw controls Saturday, but said she blamed herself in part for the team’s unprecedented inability to control draws against the Gators.
“Losing 18-5, I felt like that was something I could really help our team with,” Leonard said after the game. “We've just kind of put a bigger focus on those first few couple of seconds right off the draw…and it’s really nice to see that it paid off and it’s going be just as important next week."
Coach Amonte Hiller said she and her team took the 18-5 deficit personally and committed themselves in practice to never letting that happen again.
The Wildcats “went out there and battled like it was the end of their life,” Amonte Hiller said, “and that’s what you have to do in order to come up with those 50-50 balls, and we need to continue to do that because draw possessions are monumental at this point in the season."
1 – Goals scored by Shannon Smith in Northwestern’s past two games. The senior, who is one goal away from breaking Kristen Kjelman’s (Comm '07) goals scored record of 250, has been forced into being almost exclusively a playmaker. When asked about what she would say to Smith, Hiller said, "Just keep doing your thing. The more pressure they put on you, the more other people are going to be open and I think that’s important for our team to realize. I think they’re going to key in on our top scorers and our top dodgers, and when they do that, we’ve got to try to move the ball and find the open girl."
What comes next:
Northwestern will host No. 7 Duke (11-6) May 19 at Lakeside Field at 7 p.m. The Blue Devils defeated Virginia on Sunday and advanced to the second round but are just 2-7 against the Wildcats. Northwestern visited Duke in Durham on Feb. 19 and beat the Blue Devils 13-5.