Brockway: In Big Ten Tournament win, Kelly Amonte Hiller climbs the mountain

Kelly Amonte Hiller coaches from the sideline. The coach guided NU to its first win over Maryland in seven years Sunday.

Daily file photo by Melody Song

Kelly Amonte Hiller coaches from the sideline. The coach guided NU to its first win over Maryland in seven years Sunday.

Ella Brockway, Sports Editor

When Northwestern and Maryland met in May 2012 in a Final Four semifinal, coach Kelly Amonte Hiller was Goliath. At that point, her program had won six national championships, and after a win over the Terrapins and another victory in the final, would claim its seventh in eight years.

When the two teams met again in the Big Ten Tournament final on Sunday afternoon — and for many of the nine times they played in the seven years in between — Amonte Hiller’s status as a giant in the sport had not changed. In fact, it had grown stronger. She’d been inducted into the U.S. Lacrosse Hall of Fame and was named the head coach of the U.S. U-19 Women’s National Team.

But this time, Amonte Hiller was David.

The Wildcats came into the final as underdogs. No. 1 Maryland had won the last three Big Ten Tournaments; had not dropped a game to a Big Ten opponent since 2015; had not been defeated in the state of Maryland since March 10, 2012; and owned a top-10 scoring offense and the nation’s third-best scoring defense.

But Amonte Hiller had a plan, and it worked. NU captured its first win over the country’s top-ranked team in five years, a 16-11 victory to claim its first-ever Big Ten title.

The ties run deep between the Terrapins and the Cats. Amonte Hiller spent her four-year college career becoming one of the most decorated players in Maryland history, winning back-to-back National Player of the Year awards and two national championships. She played alongside Terrapins coach Cathy Reese for two of those four seasons.

Since Amonte Hiller took the job at NU in 2001, she’s coached against her alma mater 15 times; including in the 2012 and 2014 Final Fours and the 2010 and 2011 national championship games. The rivalry was stepped up a notch when Maryland joined the Big Ten in 2015 as the teams began facing each other once, sometimes twice, a year.

In that four-season stretch, the Terrapins advanced to the Final Four every year and won two national titles, losing just four total games. During that same time, the once-mighty Cats always finished with a winning record, but never advanced past the NCAA Quarterfinals.

That changed this spring. NU has the country’s second-best offense with 18 goals per game and, with 322 total in 18 games so far, is on pace for its most goals since 2010. The last time the Cats received a position as high as or higher than the No. 4 overall seed they received in Sunday’s NCAA Tournament bracket unveiling, they advanced to the Final Four.

Beating Maryland was a mountain that took NU seven full years to scale. It’ll be far from a simple road to climb the next one; NU’s corner of the bracket features three top-20 teams in Penn, Notre Dame and Syracuse — the last of whom handed the Cats one of their four losses of the season in February.

The next Goliath awaits, for sure, and David is coming out swinging.

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Twitter: @ellabrockway