Lacrosse: No. 2 NU drops first conference game in almost seven years, loses to No. 6 Florida

Colin Becht

It only took Florida two years to do what no team in the American Lacrosse Conference had been able to do in almost seven.

The No. 6 Gators (13-1, 4-0 ALC), in just their second year since achieving varsity status, defeated No. 2 Northwestern (12-1, 3-1) 13-11 on Thursday, handing the Wildcats their first conference defeat since May 6, 2004, and snapping a 38-game ALC winning streak.

NU led for only a minute and 35 seconds. The Gators jumped out to an early 5-1 advantage and held on to beat NU.

The Cats’ defense had no answer for the nation’s leading scorer, Kitty Cullen, who scored on NU six times.

“She really is just a very dominant player,” goaltender Brianne LoManto said. “She did play well tonight and definitely executed her gameplan against us.”

Cullen scored the Gators’ final three goals, each critical in holding off a ferocious second-half comeback effort by NU.

As critical as Cullen’s offensive explosion was, the Cats were equally undone by themselves. Unfavorable turnover and ground ball margins kept the ball in the Gators’ possession for much of the game.

NU committed 13 turnovers, seven of them caused by Florida. Many came late as the Cats closed five-goal halftime deficit to as little as one. Down 13-11 with more than five and a half minutes to play, NU turned the ball over twice, costing the Cats two invaluable chances at a goal.

“It’s really crucial,” coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said. “We had some bad turnovers at bad times and I think that it’s obviously a slight pattern throughout the season. When you play a great team, it gets exposed.”

When sophomore midfielder Erin Fitzgerald’s pressure defense forced a turnover with just less than a minute and a half remaining, Fitzgerald returned the favor with a turnover of her own, permitting Florida to run more time off the clock.

The Cats also did themselves no favors when the ball hit the turf, losing on ground balls 16-10. After NU’s 14-10 win over then-No. 8 Penn on Sunday in which the Cats similarly lost the ground ball battle, Amonte Hiller stressed the need to up the effort to win grounders. That message, however, failed to sink in as no NU player other than junior defender Lacey Vigmostad recovered multiple ground balls. Florida defender Emily Dohony single-handedly scooped up five.

“Ground balls are about determination and wanting it more,” Amonte Hiller said. “Clearly Florida wanted it more tonight than we did, so they got ground balls.”

The Cats’ inability to pick up 50-50 balls or hang on to their own possession negated a 17-9 advantage on draw controls.

After Fitzgerald scored the opening goal of the game just 22 seconds into the contest, the Cats failed to score for the next 17 minutes and 46 seconds until Fitzgerald again beat Florida goaltender Mikey Meagher low for her second of four goals..

“Because some others weren’t scoring, them moving was helping me get to the goal,” Fitzgerald said. “Just keeping their defenders busy was helping me. We work off of each other a lot.”

Florida scored four of the final five goals of the first half to take a commanding 9-4 lead into halftime, the largest deficit NU has faced this season.

Throughout the second half, the Cats’ offense pulled NU tantalizingly close to Florida by getting inside the fan and drawing fouls. Four of NU’s seven second-half goals came on free positions.

The Cats scored the first three goals of the second half less than two minutes apart, and kept the game tight from then on.

“We came out firing,” Fitzgerald said. “We played really hard in the second half but we have to do that the whole game.”

Junior attacker Shannon Smith broke free from behind the cage and scored with 6:37 remaining, her third goal and fourth point of the night, bringing the deficit to one at 12-11. That goal seemed to put the Cats on verge of climbing the mountain and completing the comeback.

However, Cullen ensured there would be no comeback, dodging into the fan and scoring a minute and two seconds later on what proved to be the game’s final goal.

Amonte Hiller said NU committed many of the same mistakes it has made all season, including not finishing, with the Cats scoring on just 11 of 30 shots. The difference was that the Gators were too skillful to let NU get away with those errors.

“We tried but it just wasn’t good enough,” Amonte Hiller said. “We couldn’t put our shots away, and that’s been happening all season but when you get into a tight game, it actually means something. We weren’t able to put away those opportunities, and therefore we weren’t able to win the game.”

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