NU scoops up Final Four bid in historic win

Nina Mandell

LACROSSE

As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Northwestern coach Kelly Amonte Hiller couldn’t keep from jumping up and down on the sideline.

And as the buzzer sounded, the 1200-person crowd at the Leonard B. Thomas Athletic Complex joined her in jumping.

The team collapsed in a pile in the middle of the field to celebrate winning the most important game in the program’s history.

In the fourth year since the varsity program was resurrected, NU is heading to the Final Four — the first women’s lacrosse team to do so from the Midwest.

The Cats (19-0) won an 8-6 battle to send home Princeton (13-5), a team that has been to the Final Four five years in a row and that won national championships in 1994, 2002 and 2003.

“Princeton is always there … they’re always in the championship,” Amonte Hiller said. “To take them out is really setting us up for good competition in the Final Four.”

NU will face Dartmouth at 5 p.m. Friday in Annapolis, Md. Dartmouth and NU were the nation’s only undefeated teams for most of the season, until Dartmouth dropped its final two regular-season games.

This is the first NU team in any sport to make it to a semifinal since field hockey made it in 1994.

Princeton coach Chris Sailer said the win helped legitimize NU as a lacrosse powerhouse, despite the fact that the Cats are from the Midwest.

“Clearly, they’re 19-0, they’ve beaten some good teams,” she said. “How can anyone not believe that they’re good?”

To beat Princeton, NU’s defense had to match a team that could successfully stop NU’s offense, which scored less than half of its season average.

The Tigers formed the greatest challenge to the “Koester double-team defense” — a tactic in which NU defender Courtney Koester comes from behind to trap an opponent already covered.

But Princeton did not form enough opposition to break the country’s top defensive lineup.

Koester said the key to the double-team’s success in the face of the challenge was having a good defensive line to back her up when she didn’t gain possession.

“I’m going to miss over 50 percent of the time,” Koester said. “But I have tremendous faith in my teammates that they’ll be there to back me up.”

Amonte Hiller also made sure to put NU sophomore Lindsay Finocchiaro on Princeton’s Lindsey Biles, as the Cats’ midfielder held the Tigers’ leading scorer to two goals.

The 8-6 victory was one of the lowest scoring games the Cats have played this season. The two teams traded goals, with NU senior Sarah Albrecht grabbing the first score of the game.

The tally stayed 1-0 for almost 10 minutes, until Princeton found the net more than 12 minutes into the match.

Kristen Kjellman and Aly Josephs scored their only goals of the game to make it 3-2. Albrecht scored again before the half ended, and the Cats held their smallest halftime lead since the team’s first game, a 6-5 victory against North Carolina on Feb. 20.

It was also the first game in which Koester could not dominate on draw controls. NU, which had nine more draw controls than Mount St. Mary’s in a 16-3 win Thursday, won two fewer than Princeton.

The Cats went on a 3-0 scoring run after halftime, before Princeton called a timeout to stop the letdown.

But it was too late for the Tigers, as the Cats turned their focus from scoring to possession and ran the clock down.

And after bowing out in the quarterfinals last season, the team was not willing to waste an opportunity to go to the Final Four.

“At that point, you have to really think about taking care of the ball,” Amonte Hiller said. “There’s a Final Four on the line.”

Reach Nina Mandell at [email protected]