Lacrosse: Northwestern routs Penn State to advance to 9th straight Final Four

Northwestern midfielder Alyssa Leonard dives to score a goal. The junior tied her career high with 4 goals in the 15-7 win over Penn State.

Meghan White/Daily Senior Staffer

Northwestern midfielder Alyssa Leonard dives to score a goal. The junior tied her career high with 4 goals in the 15-7 win over Penn State.

Josh Walfish, Sports Editor

It took No. 2 Northwestern four minutes to score, and from there the Wildcats never let up.

NU scored five times before Penn State even manufactured a shot as the Cats advanced to their ninth consecutive Final Four with a 15-7 win over the Nittany Lions on Saturday night.

“We came out strong right from the first whistle,” coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said. “We’ve been focusing in on that, so we cannot be more excited to take another trip to the Final Four.”

The Cats started strong and early, scoring 13 goals on 20 shots in the first half while limiting the Nittany Lions to just 4 shots in the opening stanza. The run was fueled by NU’s 13-4 edge in draw controls.

Junior Alyssa Leonard took most of the draws for NU but only captured two of them. Instead, the midfielder directed the ball into open space and allow her teammates to scoop up the ball and gain possession for the Cats.

“It was a battle in there,” Leonard said. “The girls in the circle are working super hard, but we’re seeing a huge difference in the people behind the lines. … A lot of the draw controls were from the girls behind, whether they’re boxing out or they’re coming up with these loose balls.”

The Nittany Lions entered the contest averaging more than 13 goals per game, but NU’s high-pressure defense puzzled them early on. The Cats forced 3 turnovers in the Nittany Lions’ first 4 possessions, and Penn State struggled to find any consistency on offense. Penn State coach Missy Doherty said the lack of cohesiveness on offense was a direct result of NU’s dominance in draws.

“It’s not like we got it down there and then missed a shot or never got people open. We just never had the ball down there,” Doherty said. “When you win four draw controls in a half, you’re not going to have many possessions to even start working the ball around.”

Leading the way for the Cats on defense were their two senior leaders, Gabriella Flibotte and Taylor Thornton. The pair caused 4 turnovers and started a fast break the other way. The Nittany Lions turned the ball over 11 times in the loss.

Flibotte credited the defensive success to offense’s ability to possess the ball so much. She said when the team is on defense, the goal is to just try and attack the offense almost immediately.

“We’re just trying to go at people as hard as we can and wreak havoc,” Flibotte said. “If we come up with caused turnovers quickly, that’s great. If it makes a minute or two, that’s fine, too, but if we can control the tempo and the attack gets the ball, that’s our motive.”

The game was a stark contrast to the matchup just two shorts weeks ago in Baltimore in the ALC semifinals. The Cats won 9-8 in overtime May 3, but Saturday resembled the 11-3 NU win on April 5 against Penn State.

Both Flibotte and Leonard pointed to the quick start as one of the main differences between the two games.

“We’ve been working hard super hard in practice every single day … and I think it just kind of showed today,” Leonard said. “We were going to come out hard at the first whistle and play a full 60 minutes.”

Leonard was the focal point of the offense in the early going, finding an abundance of space near the cage with which to work. She tied a career high with 4 goals Saturday night, all of which came in the first half. ‘

Senior Erin Fitzgerald scored three times after being held scoreless in her previous two contests. The attacker capitalized twice from 8 meters out and now has a team-high 59 goals on the season.

NU moves on to play No. 3 North Carolina in the national semifinals Friday. The Tar Heels beat the Cats 11-8 on Feb. 22, and even though the game was several months ago, NU is hungry for revenge.

“That game was so long ago, but I think redemption is sweet,” Flibotte said.

For The Daily’s photo gallery from the game, visit https://dailynorthwestern.com/2013/05/19/multimedia/photo-gallery-northwestern-lacrosse-vs-penn-state/