Cats crush Tar Heels to complete championship quintet

Danny Daly

Posted May 24. Updated 9:45 p.m.

Towson, Md. – It was what Hannah Nielsen and her classmates had dreamed about before the season. The Northwestern seniors had already achieved plenty, winning three national titles in three years and countless individual accolades, but they still had not finished a season undefeated.

On Sunday, the Wildcats emphatically crossed that off their list.

No.1 NU took control of the game in the opening minute and never looked back, routing No. 3 North Carolina 21-7 at Johnny Unitas Stadium in Towson, Md., for its fifth consecutive national title. It was the worst blowout in NCAA championship game history and the most goals the Tar Heels have ever allowed in a single contest.

Finally, after four grueling years of fending off challengers and working tirelessly to stay at the top of the women’s lacrosse world, the class of 2009 could be satisfied.

“This was really special for us,” Nielsen said. “At the beginning of the year, we kind of joked about it, said it was the only thing we hadn’t really accomplished as a class. To go out the way we did tonight was so special, we were all so proud of each other and proud of this team.”

The final was especially rewarding for the all-time NCAA Division-I assist queen, who had received the brunt of opposing defenses’ attention throughout the tournament and struggled. Nielsen tallied five assists in less than five minutes at the end of the first half, helping the Cats (23-0) seize a 15-3 lead at the break.

Senior attacker Hilary Bowen had a game to remember as well. Bowen tore her left ACL six weeks ago, yet recovered in time to contribute to NU’s final three wins. She was ineffective in her first two games and was on the bench in crunch time of Friday’s thrilling 13-12 double-overtime victory over Pennsylvania.

Against North Carolina (16-5), Bowen fought through pain to lead all scorers with five goals – the second time she has found the back of the net five times in the championship game. And battling back from the injury made the experience even more gratifying.

“I never thought I’d be in this situation,” Bowen said. “It’s amazing. It was really hard when I went down, just thinking about the fact that it could have been season-ending.”

Bowen started the scoring, shaking her defender less than a minute into the game to put the Cats on the scoreboard. North Carolina converted on free position opportunities to close the gap to 2-1 and 4-2, but NU scored 11 goals in the final 15 minutes of the half to take away any suspense. The defense turned in a solid performance, too – the Tar Heels only scored on free positions in the first half, and senior goalie Morgan Lathrop finished with five saves. Throughout the season, coach Kelly Amonte Hiller has emphasized the importance of having multiple players score. Her point was particularly pertinent during the close call against Penn, in which the secondary scorers failed to step up down the stretch when Nielsen and Bowen were neutralized.

In the final, Amonte Hiller’s squad got the message. Senior Mary Kate Casey scored moments after subbing into the game for freshman Shannon Smith early in the first half, and fellow senior Meghan Plunkett tacked on a goal closer to intermission. Sophomore speed demon Brooke Matthews recorded a hat trick after having minimal impact against the Quakers, and eight different Cats in all fired a shot past junior Tar Heels’ goalie Logan Ripley.

“That was the key,” Amonte Hiller said. “We talked to them on Saturday morning and said, ‘Listen, you guys didn’t get many looks on Friday night, you’re rested, and you’re going to be the difference on Sunday. We need you guys to step up.’ They did a great job – it seemed like every time they were out there in that first half, they scored.”

North Carolina’s defense was stifling in an 8-7 win over Maryland in the semifinals, but it looked considerably slower and less cohesive in a poor performance against NU.

The main difference between the Terrapins and the Cats was their style of play. Once Nielsen got into the flow, NU’s ball movement made its attack almost unstoppable.

“Maryland took a lot of one v. one challenges, and Northwestern fed the ball in a lot more,” senior defender Amber Falcone said. “Northwestern has a lot of threats, and they got a lot of backdoors onus. We weren’t communicating, and we weren’t really moving our feet.”

NU’s seniors stayed out on the field for most of the second half, even with the large lead. As a result, Nielsen and Bowen were able to connect one last time, with the former feeding the latter for the Cats’ 20th goal.

It was the perfect way to close out their careers.

“Since our sophomore year, we’ve been developing an on-field connection,” Nielsen said. “When she went down with her knee (injury), it was a little bit scary for me not being able to look over and have her behind the net. I’m just so glad she got to be back on the field in the Final Four.”

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