Lacrosse: Frank fires NU into NCAA Finals

Danny Daly

Posted May 22, 7:46 p.m. Updated May 23, 12:02 a.m.

TOWSON, MD.–Even Katrina Dowd couldn’t explain how the over-the-shoulder shot she made from her knees found its way into the back of the net.

Regardless of how it happened, Dowd gave No. 1 Northwestern a chance to win its fifth straight national championship.

NU trailed 12-11 against arch-rival No. 4 Pennsylvania in the first overtime of Friday’s first semifinal game, with time rapidly running down in the opening three-minute period. Dowd had already fired a shot at Quakers’ junior goalie Emily Szelest that was turned away, but somehow she ended up with the ball again after a mad scramble in front of the net.

From an unfavorable angle, an unfavorable position and with 0.2 seconds left, Dowd snuck the game-tying goal past Szelest without even looking.

“Honestly, I had no idea where the ball was going when I shot,” Dowd said. “I knew there was no time and I had to one-time it in to get the chance.”

That circus-caliber play swung momentum back into the Wildcats’ favor, and senior midfielder Meredith Frank finished off the Quakers with a goal in sudden death to give her team an improbable 13-12 double-overtime win. NU (22-0) will play No. 3 North Carolina (16-4), who upset undefeated and second-ranked Maryland 8-7 in the other semifinal, on Sunday for the title.

The Cats took control of the game from the opening whistle. Junior attacker Danielle Spencer drew the ball to herself and, after a turnover by senior attacker Hilary Bowen, intercepted a pass deep in Penn territory and scored seconds later to put NU on the scoreboard. Not even six minutes into the game, the score was 3-0 in favor of the Cats, forcing Quakers’ coach Karin Brower to call a timeout to try to stop the bleeding.

“We’ve been behind this year, so I never thought this game was getting away from us,” she said. “They just fight, and they can always answer back.”

It worked. Penn’s defense stiffened up after the timeout, holding NU to only two goals for the rest of the half. The Quakers faced only a 5-4 deficit at the half thanks to a balanced scoring attack, with contributions from unlikely suspects such as Bethany Warren (whose second goal of the season drew her team within one).

Penn was also very competitive on the draws against a squad that won nearly 75 percent of them in the first two rounds. The Cats held a 6-4 advantage after the first half, and the two teams were tied in that category at the end of regulation.

“We wanted the ball to be more 50-50,” Brower said. “We had played them and seen that they tried to throw the ball up to themselves in the center, and I think we really messed that up.”

It was a back-and-forth contest throughout, especially in the second half.

NU grabbed its first lead 65 seconds into the game, but the teams traded goals for about 30 minutes after Penn closed the gap to 4-3 midway through the first half. The Quakers kept the Cats from extending their lead to three goals, but also could not pull even.

Because of the history between these two teams, NU is used to Penn’s resilience. The Quakers overcame a two-goal halftime deficit last season to hand the Cats their only loss.

“Penn is a tough team,” Amonte Hiller said. “They have tough kids, a never-die attitude and they don’t roll over ever – they never have and probably never will.”

Finally, with an 8-7 lead, NU broke the game open. Senior goalie Morgan Lathrop made a series of tough saves, enabling the Cats to string together three straight goals and claim an 11-7 edge. Six-and-a-half minutes stood between them and the championship game.

Then the unthinkable happened.

NU blew a four-goal lead, the first time it has squandered a second-half lead that large since a 14-13 win against Rutgers in 2004 – the last year Amonte Hiller’s squad did not win the national title.

The Cats had a chance to win the game at the end of regulation, but senior attacker Hannah Nielsen could not make anything happen. The defending Tewaaraton Trophy winner was held scoreless for the second straight game, and classmate Hilary Bowen was not even on the field during crunch time because of her turnover problems.

But the coach was not concerned about her team going into overtime.

“Even though Penn tied it up, I still felt confident in our team’s ability to come up with the draw controls and put a shot away,” Amonte Hiller said.

Her faith was rewarded. The Cats won three of the four draws in the extra periods, allowing them to dictate the tempo. Their opening possessions in both halves of the first overtime did not produce goals. But at the beginning of the sudden death period, the third time proved to be the charm. Frank scored 89 seconds in, before Penn even touched the ball, giving the senior class a chance to win four national titles in four seasons.

“I wasn’t looking to pass that ball – I was definitely looking to score,” Frank said. “We knew the team that didn’t score would be done for the year. I didn’t want to be the team that was done.”

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Related: Forman: Towson takes, Northwestern lacrosse makes greatness 5/23/09Liveblog of the game on Cats’ Corner