With four goals, Shannon Smith made sure she and her classmates went out with a bang Saturday against Virginia, but not before lukewarm offense and faulty defense gave Northwestern fans a scare in the beginning of Senior Day at Lakeside Field.
The No. 1 Wildcats defeated the No. 9 Virginia Cavaliers 13-6 on the strength of an impressive second-half surge. But things did not get off to a promising start at Lakeside Field before the Wildcats showed their championship-caliber resolve that women’s lacrosse has grown accustom to.
“I don’t think today was our best effort," coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said. “It was a tale of two halves, but I think that we’ve had a grueling last few weeks and I think that we’re heading into the playoffs with some momentum.”
That momentum was slow to come by. Despite dominating control of the ball in the first period, Northwestern only converted two of its 13 shots in goals, the first coming on a free position shot by Ali Cassera at the 10:10 mark and the second on a Taylor Thornton drive at 3:01.
“I think the first half we came out really slow and we weren’t playing together on the offense end,” Smith said. “Then we kind of threw everything out and said ‘We’re here as a team, we want to extend our season and we need to win to extend our season and keep building upon what we did [on Wednesday against Notre Dame].’”
But by the time the ‘Cats scored their first goal, the Cavs had already scored thrice due in part to Northwestern’s lethargic defense. Virginia scored four goals on six shots and took a 4-2 lead into the second half.
However, Thornton’s scoring drive 17 minutes into the first half served as the turning point for the ‘Cats. As soon as the junior tore through the Cavalier defense and cut the Northwestern deficit in half, the ‘Cats played air-tight defense, forced turnovers and looked like the No. 1 team in the nation again. And the improvement did not stop at halftime.
Just 1:26 into the second half, Smith notched her first goal of the game as she dodged and ducked around Cavalier defenders before finding twine at point blank range. Fifty-five seconds later, Gabriella Flibotte bounced the equalizing goal past Virginia goalkeeper Kim Kolarik and the ‘Cats took a 5-4 lead on Kim Mupo’s goal at the 26:30 mark.
“[At halftime] I said, ‘Just forget about the first half,’” Amonte Hiller said. “‘Let’s play confident, let’s play calm, we’ve been in this situation before so we need to just go out there and do it.’”
Northwestern would score 11 goals in the second period and only let up two more in the second thanks to nearly flawless defense. “Our defense has been so solid all season long and we’re asking them to do so much,” Amonte Hiller said.
This holds true for the task assigned to Kerri Harington. Harrington, a defensive superstar making her fourth start of the season, was put in charge of Virginia's Josie Owen, the Cavaliers top scorer, and did not let her tally a point as the Wildcats closed out the game 13-6.
13: Shots Northwestern took in each half. The efficiency of these shots was starkly different in each half, however.
“We’re working on sticking together,” Smith said. “Whatever’s happening, just sticking together and getting out of your own head and I think we really did that today. We really stuck together, we kept talking, we kept encouraging, and came out there fired up in the second half.”
0: Goals scored this season by senior defender Alex Frank before scoring with just 1:11 left in the second half.
“I kind of wanted a goal all season my senior year,” said Frank, who had played as a midfielder. “When I got that drive and no one was in front it was just straight to the goal. I took a shot and I’m just happy that it went in.”
She added, “That’s like something you always wish for, a goal on your senior day, and for it to be my first? Even better.”
Where they stand:
Now that the regular season is over, the Wildcats will head to American Lacrosse Conference tournament in Gainesville, Fla. on May 3rd, where they will take on the Penn State Nittany Lions in the first round.
“We want to prepare well this week,” Amonte Hiller said. “Amping up our game in terms of the level of focus that we have and the level of motivation that we have is really important.”