Lacrosse: Gritty defensive play pushes No. 5 NU past No. 11 UVA

Colin Becht

In many ways, Northwestern’s matchup with Virginia was uncharacteristic for the Wildcats: They lost draw controls, won ground balls and were held to single digits.

Luckily for NU, the outcome was more predictable.

No. 5 NU outlasted No. 11 Virginia in a defensive standoff, defeating the Cavaliers 8-4 on Saturday. Though the Cats rank sixth in the nation in goals per game, it was the defense that ensured the victory, holding Virginia to just one goal in the final 49 minutes.

The Cats (15-2) held the Cavaliers (9-8) to 15 shots and goaltender Brianne LoManto came up with five saves to shut down after it opened up an early 3-2 lead.

Though NU was unable to take advantage of its lockdown defense to blow out Virginia, the Cats frustrated the Cavaliers defense with long possessions and patient attacks.

“We were having a lot longer possessions,” said junior attacker Jessica Russo, who had a goal and an assist in the game. “We were wearing them down. That’s something we were really looking forward to doing.”

Though NU was held scoreless for 27-and-a-half minute stretch spanning the halves, it eventually found its offense late. The Cats scored four times in the final six minutes to pull away from a 4-4 tie.

“We weren’t looking for the first shot,” Russo said. “We were trying to get second and third-shot opportunities so we could get more of a layup. We were trying to do that all game and it really worked towards our advantage more at the end of the game.”

Sophomore midfielder Erin Fitzgerald contributed what proved to be the game-winner on a free position and freshman midfielder Kat DeRonda added two more to secure the victory.

Still it was LoManto and the NU defense that most generated the outcome, holding the Cavaliers far below their 11.47 goals per game average. Though Virginia led 3-2 at halftime, the Cavaliers got just five shots off in the first half, and after that third goal, the Cats shut them out for nearly 43 minutes.

“It’s great to hold them to that many goals,” coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said. “The middies played well on defense. They really made a commitment to it.”

Junior defender Lacey Vigmostad anchored the NU defense, causing three turnovers while scooping up two ground balls. The Cats caused eight turnovers on Saturday, their most since causing nine in a 14-5 win over Penn State on April 8.

“The defense played incredible today, ” Russo said. “They were anticipating the ball, anticipating passes. They were playing together, making slides. They were really all over the place.”

The defense also made things easier on LoManto by not committing a single free-position foul.

Offensively the Cats suffered from the same shortcoming that it has faced for much of the second half of the season. Despite getting 26 shots NU found the back of the cage only eight times and put shots on goal just 13 times. The .308 shot percentage was NU’s lowest since its 7-6 overtime win over then-No. 3 North Carolina in the second game of the season and the .500 shots on goal percentage was the Cats’ worst since the stat began being regularly kept at the start of 2006 season.

“We didn’t shoot great,” Amonte Hiller said. “But I think we made some steps offensively and hopefully the shooting will come next game.”

Though junior attacker Shannon Smith kept her streak of 39 straight games with a goal alive when she dodged from behind the net for a score, Smith struggled with her finishing. The nation’s leader in points scored only once on nine shots with only two of those nine on net. She did rip a shot off the crossbar midway through the second half, one of three shots off the post by the Cats.

Saturday’s win wrapped up NU’s regular season. By finishing second in the American Lacrosse Conference, the Cats earned a bye into the ALC Tournament semifinals along with top-seeded No. 2 Florida.