An early two-goal deficit and a slow start proved to be too much for No. 7 Northwestern (16-7, 7-2 Big Ten) to overcome on Saturday. NU fell to No. 9 Duke (13-6) 2-1 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in the first round of the NCAA tournament, ending the Cats’ first tournament run in 20 years.
“We knew that it was going to be a really good battle,” coach Tracey Fuchs said. “We just got caught on our heels in the first 10 to 15 minutes.”
Despite having focused on aggressive starts all season, the Cats appeared slightly jarred and jumbled as the match began, failing to execute the fluid, crisp hits that have come to characterize their play this season. The Blue Devils, on the other hand, were able to string together passes nicely, working the ball from the backfield all the way into the circle, where they aptly challenged the Cats’ defense.
“I feel like as a group, we were all so stunned that we had gotten there,” junior Lisa McCarthy said. “It was like the awe or importance of the game got to us.”
Duke’s first goal of the matchup came 24:39 into the game. After senior goalkeeper Maddy Carpenter made an impressive diving save on the Blue Devils’ initial shot, Duke was able to flick the rebound in, notching the score at 1-0.
The Blue Devils didn’t let up. Their attackers continued to press offensively, earning multiple penalty corners. On their sixth and final penalty corner of the half, Duke was able to capitalize, cracking one into the back of the cage. The Cats entered halftime trailing by two.
Though the Cats failed to play to their full potential during that first stanza, their defense — especially on corner plays — was commendable. The Blue Devils earned six corners in the first half, but they only scored on one of them.
“We have a really good defensive unit,” Fuchs said. “Our corner defense is really strong, especially with Maddy in the back.”
After weathering Duke’s offensive storm with minimal damage, the Cats took the field for another 35 minutes of play. They looked like a new team.
“We’ve talked a lot about resilience all year, the ability to come back,” McCarthy said. “The ability to regain our focus and stability.”
In the second half, the Cats found the stability and balance they had yet to display, answering Duke’s early attack with an offensive surge of their own. NU earned its second corner of the game 12 minutes into the second half. After sophomore Isabel Flens’ first shot was saved, McCarthy nailed the rebound past the Blue Devils goalkeeper to put the Cats on the board. McCarthy knew, however, that there was still much work to be done.
“We knew, this is still a dogfight,” she said. “We’ve got to keep persevering.”
Persevere they did. In stark contrast to the sloppy midfield play displayed in the first half, the Cats were able to easily connect with one another in the backfield and midfield, something that Fuchs attributes to better cutting and poise under pressure.
“In the first half, we hid, and the person with the ball didn’t have any options,” Fuchs said. “(In the second half) we settled down and took that extra second to pass well.”
As the game intensified while the clock ticked down, NU continued to dominate, trying to create opportunities to score an equalizer. In the end, they were unable to do so. The score stood at 2-1 as the final whistle blew.
Despite the painful loss, this game, and the 2014 NU field hockey season, will be remembered.
“I think that it solidifies the fact that we are a solid team and we are here to stay,” Fuchs said. “As painful as it is to lose, we are happy with where we are and where we are going.”
NU ended its season 16-7, 7-2 in the Big Ten, and with the program’s first ever Big Ten championship.
“I’m proud of what we’ve achieved and what we’ve come from,” McCarthy said. “Northwestern field hockey is and will continue to be a force in the national field hockey scene.”
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