No. 2 NU preserves its undefeated record with late comeback against No. 3 Duke

Colin Becht

Since a 7-6 overtime win over then-No. 3 North Carolina on Feb. 25, Northwestern had looked basically invincible, winning its last seven games by a combined 66 goals.

The Wildcats looked far from unstoppable Saturday but mounted just enough of a comeback to defeat No. 3 Duke 12-10 at Lakeside Field.

NU trailed 8-5 in the second half before going on a 7-2 run to kill the Blue Devils’ hopes of an upset. The Cats scored five of the last six goals of the game and then possessed the ball for the final five minutes and thirty-one seconds of the game to ensure the victory.

“We were a little bit more aggressive, a little bit more poised in the second half,” coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said. “That’s how we were able to convert on some opportunities.”

Junior attacker Shannon Smith collected five points to lead all players, including three goals. Smith’s drive from behind the cage complete with a finish in the back of the net with six minutes and fifty-eight seconds remaining in the game proved to be the game-winner.

“If you don’t have your big players step up, then you can’t win games,” Amonte Hiller said. “Offensively we’re still trying to find our groove, and she’s key to that component.”

Smith, the NCAA’s leader in points, was instrumental in sparking the Cats’ comeback with two goals in the second half.

The Cats dominated the Blue Devils statistically for the entire game, but failed to capitalize on a plethora of scoring chances due to poor shot placement and superb goaltending by Duke’s Molly Mackler.

“We took some poor shots,” Amonte Hiller said. “The looks that we were getting in the first half were good looks, but we didn’t put our shots away. The decisions weren’t as good.”

Mackler made 20 saves, including 15 on NU’s 21 shots in the first half. The Cats had all six of the game’s first shots, but were denied on all of them, many coming from point-blank range, by Mackler.

“She played amazing in there,” Smith said. “She had a terrific game. She had awesome saves.”

Mackler also did what very few goaltenders have done to NU, holding the Cats to 1-of-9 on free position shots in the first half, far below their .516 conversion rate entering Saturday’s contest.

“1-for-9, how can that happen?” Amonte Hiller said. “It’s focus and taking that extra second to put it around the goalie.”

While Mackler stonewalled the Cats in the first half, the Blue Devils efficiently tallied seven goals on 13 shots. The lethal duo of attackers Emma Hamm and Christie Kaestner combined for six first-half points, including two direct combinations between the pair for goals.

Duke opened the scoring in the second half when midfielder Kim Wenger fed attacker Amanda Jones in the middle of the fan and she found the back of the net.

That goal seemed to awake the Cats both offensively and defensively as NU controlled most of the rest of the game. Sophomore midfielder Erin Fitzgerald scored off a free position followed by a shot by Smith that zoomed just above the turf and beat Mackler.

“We know we can score, we practice it every day, ” Smith said. “It was more of us going out there with confidence and knowing that when you step on that field everybody can put the ball in the back of the net.”

Jones scored her third goal of the game, controlling the rebound from her own shot to beat NU goaltender Brianne LoManto on the second effort.

But NU rattled off the next three goals, two of them by junior midfielder Jessica Russo to take a 10-9 lead.

“(Russo) realized that she had some openings and she put them away,” Amonte Hiller said. “She was a great boost for us.”

Hamm and Kaestner paired for their third goal of the game, this one finished by Hamm and assisted by Kaestner, but the 10-10 tie wouldn’t last as Smith and Fitzgerald continued the NU offensive barrage to finish off the Blue Devils.

The Wildcats’ defense upped the pressure in the second half on Duke’s attackers while LoManto made eight saves in the second stanza on 14 shots. She also denied the Blue Devils on all three of their free position shots in the second half.

“I was just trying to focus on getting a little closer,” LoManto said. “That one inch does make a huge difference.”

NU’s defenders contributed to LoManto’s higher save percentage by limiting the Blue Devils’ chances from close range. The Cats’ defensive intensity led Duke to commit eight turnovers in the second half, while NU controlled seven ground balls.

“We were crashing the middle, which is awesome, so if they did get the pass in the middle, our defense was there,” LoManto said. “They weren’t able to get the shot off.”

[email protected]