Lacrosse: What to Watch for: No. 1 Northwestern enters Big Ten Tournament with a target on its back


Daily file photo by Seeger Gray

Sophomore midfielder Emerson Bohlig runs with the ball in transition. Bohlig tallied nine points in the regular season.

Jake Epstein, Assistant Sports Editor

After 16 dress rehearsals, a primetime performance is finally on the horizon.

No. 1 Northwestern heads to Columbus, Ohio on Thursday for a Big Ten Tournament semifinal against No. 16 Michigan, hoping to maintain its presumptive top seed in the NCAA bracket.

The Wildcats (15-1, 6-0 Big Ten) look to complete the season-sweep over the Wolverines (11-6, 3-3 Big Ten), before facing the winner of a matchup between No. 10 Maryland and No. 23 Rutgers in the conference tournament championship Saturday. 

NU picked up a convincing victory the last time they faced Michigan on March 16, as the Cats cruised to a 15-5 lead after three quarters and managed a late Michigan maneuver to pick up a 16-8 victory. 

Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller’s team won its next eight contests after the mid-March meeting, closing out the regular season on a 15-game winning streak. The Wolverines won five of their next seven contests, highlighted by regular-season and postseason triumphs over No. 21 Penn State.

With a ticket to the final and a newly minted No. 1 ranking on the line, here are three storylines to keep in mind as NU kicks off its postseason campaign against Michigan.

Player to watch: Michigan attacker Jill Smith

The Wolverines are a young and hungry bunch, looking to make some noise and stun college lacrosse’s top-ranked squad. Jill Smith — a second-year scoring sensation —  embodies the team-first culture that Michigan coach Hannah Nielsen is building in Ann Arbor.

Jill Smith has scored 55 goals and tallied 10 assists in 16 starts this season. Her knack for finding separation and exploiting shooting angles, combined with her elite speed, allows the Wolverines to punch well-above their weight.

She registered a hat trick the last time she faced the Cats, and her team needs her to match — if not eclipse — that goal tally for a fighting chance on Thursday. However, that feat seems easier said than done, as NU’s defense held the potent Terrapin attack to six scores in its last contest.

First-team All-Big Ten sophomore defender Samantha White will likely match up with the Wolverine standout for much of the game in a battle of best-on-best, while second-team all-conference junior defender Kendall Halpern will also make her presence known.

The conference’s top statistical offense and defense duke it out

Despite tallying a co-season low 13 goals in its regular-season finale against then-No. 12 Maryland, the Cats’ offense still hold the nation’s highmark in goals scored per game — averaging 17.75 conversions each contest.

However, NU will have to break down a tough Michigan defense for the second time this season. The Wolverines surrendered a season-high 16 scores in the teams’ last tussle, but only conceded double-digit scores on two other occasions after that date.

Michigan carries the conference’s lowest goals allowed per game average into Columbus, giving up a mean of just 9.13 tallies each time out.

While the Wolverines typically pose a defensive reckoning for their opponents, the Cats’ seven-deep scoring rotation means that Nielsen must draw up an elaborate defensive scheme to give her team a shot at the upset.

Dominance in the draw circle poses a crucial factor

NU won the draw control battle 13-11 in the teams’ last matchup, and sophomore midfielder Samantha Smith racked up a team-high four draw controls. But, Michigan attacker Lily Montemarano corralled a game-high five draws and caused headaches in the circle for the Cats.

Samantha Smith sits fourth in the conference with 5.56 draw controls per game, and her campaign’s efforts were rewarded with a first-team All-Big Ten nod last week. Three spots behind the Cats’ sophomore midfielder, Montemarano pulls in an average of 3.71 draws each game.

The draw battle doesn’t necessarily determine wins and losses, but winning the lion-share of possession will tip the scales slightly in the more successful draw unit’s favor.

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Twitter: @jakeepste1n

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