Daily file photo by Jorge Melendez
Last year, Northwestern’s season came to a screeching halt in the NCAA semifinal, losing 21-13 to Syracuse.
The Wildcats (16-4, 5-1 Big Ten) already redeemed that loss this year, dominating the Orange (15-6, 6-2 ACC) in the quarterfinal on May 19. But North Carolina (20-0, 8-0 ACC), the tournament’s number one overall seed, will be the toughest task yet.
In their earlier matchup on March 6, the Tar Heels controlled the game from start to finish, outscoring NU 12-5 in the second half. North Carolina hasn’t lost a game yet this season and defeated its first NCAA Tournament opponent, Virginia (10-10, 3-5 ACC), 24-2.
“They have a lot of weapons all over the field, but we do as well,” coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said. “They’re a different team than they were when we played them early on, and we’re a really different team. All the adversity that we’ve hit has really helped us grow a ton.”
The Tar Heels showed flashes of weakness against Stony Brook’s stingy defense in their quarterfinal matchup. The Seawolves (16-3, 6-0 America East) held North Carolina to its lowest goal output all season, allowing just eight goals in the Tar Heels’ 8-5 victory.
Stony Brook deployed a 2-3-2 zone in the eight-meter, with a “rover” in the middle to knock down cross-crease passes. The Seawolves forced 18 turnovers in the game, almost seven more than their season average of 11.1. The Tar Heels made enough adjustments to win the game, but with how skilled NU is at the draw circle, that tight defensive style could help the Cats maintain possession.
NU’s defense, while not as prolific as Stony Brook’s number-one ranked defense, has been a team strength so far in the tournament, led by senior goaltender Madison Doucette. Doucette made 11 saves and only allowed four goals in the quarterfinal matchup against Syracuse.
After the disappointing loss in the semifinals last year, the Cats’ defense is motivated by the matchup to play the best game possible, Doucette said.
“The coaches did a great job of preparing us as a whole (for the tournament),” Doucette said. “You’ve got to be ready for that moment and execute when you get out there.”
The matchup between NU and North Carolina in the draw circle will be one of the stories of the game. Both teams are among the best in the nation on the draw, with the Cats winning 59.7% of their draws this season, and the Tar Heels winning 58.4%.
There’s no formula to beat North Carolina — no team has managed it yet this season. The Tar Heels are elite in every aspect of the game. But last season, despite going undefeated up to the semifinal, Boston College defeated them in a low-scoring, 11-10 matchup.
This weekend marks the end of many NU’s seniors’ and graduate students’ careers. Doucette, who has not said whether she plans to utilize her extra year of eligibility, said she can’t think of a better way to end her senior season than in the Final Four.
“It’s incredible, just being in purple,” Doucette said. “We all came here because we wanted to compete for and win national championships, and thus far the season we put ourselves in an opportunity to play on championship weekend. We’ve played as long as we can thus far — we just want two more games.”
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