NU crushes Albany, advances to NCAA semifinal

Colin Becht

Albany entered Saturday’s match undefeated only to leave the night thoroughly defeated — in every sense of the word.

In what junior attacker Shannon Smith said was the most complete performance of the season, No. 2 Northwestern annihilated No. 8 Albany 18-4 behind an offensive explosion in the first half, sending the Wildcats to their seventh-straight NCAA Championships semifinal appearance.

“It was difficult to watch at times,” Albany coach John Battaglino said. “I just tried to prepare them for the speed and the intensity, which we knew Northwestern was going to attack us with.”

NU will face No. 3 North Carolina on Friday as the Tar Heels look to avenge a 7-6 overtime defeat NU dealt to them earlier this season.

The Cats scored 13 times in the first half on Saturday, matching their high for goals in a half this season and topping the number of goals Albany allowed in any game this year. The bombardment of goals allowed NU to build a 10-goal margin by halftime.

“That’s the best I saw them play,” Battaglino said. “When we made mistakes they capitalized right away on it.”

Smith had a hat trick within the first 10 minutes of the game, helping the Cats jump out to a 7-1 advantage. The Tewaaraton Award-finalist finished the game with six points and five goals. She has now scored four goals or more in 12 of NU’s 21 games this season.

“I did a good job of spacing myself from the defender,” Smith said. “At some points I got too close on my moves, but I think this week I’ve been really focusing on it.”

Though often facing double- and triple-teams on her dodges to the cage, Smith relied on creativity to still got shots off, often utilizing an underhand shot, released from just above the artificial turf surface.

“She has really good stick skills, she’s quick,” Albany midfielder-defender Nikki Branchini said. “You never really know what she’s going to do.”

Though Smith had plenty of success with the scoop shot on Saturday, she admitted she “probably should shoot overhand.”

Albany played without its star goaltender Anna Berman who is second in the nation in goals allowed. Berman didn’t make the trip to Evanston due a suspension for failing to comply with team standards.

“It was another kind of blow to us,” Battaglino said. “She did not meet the expectations set forth by our team.”

Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said NU wasn’t aware Berman wouldn’t be playing until just before the game.

The Cats piled on backup Brett Yenger, firing 16 shots in the first half, all of which found the frame of the goal. NU’s .643 shooting percentage was its second-best of the season.

“We were moving the ball really well,” Smith said. “We were faking. We’re taking our time on the shots. We either faked high, shoot low (or) faked low, shoot high. So I think we found the openings in the net.”

While Smith was once again the highlight of the offense, the Cats displayed their depth as both sophomore midfielder Erin Fitzgerald and freshman attacker Kelly Rich picked up hat tricks. Nine different NU players scored in the offensive onslaught as the Cats were able to work in their subs throughout the second half.

“Our team really has such great chemistry this year,” Fitzgerald said. “It allows other people to get the openings and the balance of scoring is just everyone working hard and backing each other up and working for each other.”

All of NU’s first 14 goals came unassisted demonstrating the Cats’ ability to create offense on their own. No player made that more apparent than sophomore defender Taylor Thornton. 11 minutes into the game, Thornton scooped up a ground ball in NU’s defensive area and then took it the length of the field, outrunning several defenders before slotting a shot by Yenger.

While the Cats’ dominant offensive performance left little anxiety on the defense, NU’s defensive pressure frustrated the Great Danes throughout the game. Albany got off only nine shots in game, including just two in the second half. The Great Danes also committed 16 turnovers, 11 of which were caused by the Cats.

“I saw a lot of freshmen play like freshmen, make a lot of freshman mistakes and just sloppy passes,” Battaglino said. Seven of Albany’s 16 turnovers were committed by freshmen.

When errant passes hit the crowd, NU nearly always came up with the loose balls, winning the ground ball advantage 15-7. Thornton spearheaded that effort, scooping up five singlehandedly.

“It’s all focus, working together focusing in on coming up with it,” Amonte Hiller said. “Previously in the season, we’ve had chances, almost come up with it, but just haven’t had that locked-in focus that we’ve needed to make the play.”