Lacrosse: What to watch for: No. 1 Northwestern gears up for Final Four encounter with No. 5 Denver


Graphic by Lawrence Price

Graduate student attacker Izzy Scane and Denver defender Sam Thacker will go head-to-head Friday. Both garnered IWLCA first-team All-American honors on Thursday.

Jake Epstein, Assistant Sports Editor

Almost a year ago, the Lake Show sprung out to a seven-goal lead in the NCAA Tournament semifinal over then-No. 1 North Carolina. The midwestern powerhouse stood just 15 minutes away from its first championship Sunday since 2012.

But a fourth quarter collapse sent coach Kelly Amonte Hiller’s team home empty-handed in a 15-14 heartbreaker. Since then, NU regrouped — complete with a mix of veterans and new additions — to once again reach where the team has peaked in the past three seasons.

“This team has really been building off what we’ve done over the last three years where we’ve made Final Fours,” Amonte Hiller said. “We’ve learned lots of lessons.”

Now, No. 1 Northwestern holds a shot at redemption in its fourth consecutive Final Four appearance, this time in Cary, North Carolina. However, No. 5 Denver — the only undefeated squad in the country — obstructs NU’s path to a potential eighth national championship.

In a battle of the No. 1 scoring offense versus the No. 1 scoring defense, the Wildcats (19-1, 6-0 Big Ten) are eager to become the first team to pummel the Pioneers (22-0, 6-0 Big East).

“The focus is on us,” Amonte Hiller said. “We understand that they have a great defense, but we have a great defense as well — and we have a lot of weapons on the offensive end.”

Here are a few factors to focus on as NU vies for its 20th victory of the season against Denver at WakeMed Soccer Park on Friday afternoon.

Rankings and analytics become a wash once the whistle blows

This matchup rightfully garners the billing of a top-five battle of the best teams in their respective regions. The Cats made goalscoring an art form this season, averaging an NCAA high of 17 goals per game. Meanwhile, the Pioneers turned back the clock and mastered a pressure zone that lets up just 5.82 goals per game. 

However, rankings seldom mean much during 60-plus minutes of do-or-die action. Each team’s efforts will be all for nothing without a win Friday.

“Numbers and rankings are all subjective,” graduate student goalkeeper Molly Laliberty said. “The scoreboard at the end of the day is not subjective. We’re really just focused on going out and playing our game — not caring what others have to say.”

 The Cats’ attack faces its toughest test

Pressure creates diamonds. 

Graduate student attacker Izzy Scane and the NU offense must hope this old adage reigns true in both the magnitude of the moment and for the intense defensive unit they will face.

The Cats barreled through the nation’s second-ranked scoring defense in a 16-6 drubbing of No. 8 Loyola Maryland on May 18, but the Pioneers present a different monster. The mile-high militia makes caused turnovers its modus operandi. 

“We’re really focused on playing our best offense (and) playing for each other in a way that’s going to allow us to pick apart any defense we’re gonna play,” Scane said after her 10-point performance against Loyola Maryland. “Denver is an amazing defense — it’ll be an awesome opportunity to see what our group can do.”

Friday’s heavyweight bout pits prominent Pioneer defenders Sam Thacker, Trinity McPherson and Bryn McCaughey — and goalkeeper Emelia Bohi — against the Cats’ array of attacking firepower. 

Nevertheless, Amonte Hiller said she trusts Laliberty, sophomore defender Samantha White, junior defender Kendall Halpern and the rest of her shot stopping unit to perform.

“If our offense can produce anywhere from 10 to 15 goals, we’re feeling pretty good about ourselves at this point,” Amonte Hiller said. “The (defense) has been pretty lockdown.”

Potential for peak performances between the pipes

Both squads boast elite netminders in Laliberty and Bohi. NU’s two contests with championship implications against Maryland showcased Laliberty’s standing amongst the country’s top goalkeepers, as she traded acrobatic stops with Terrapin goalkeeper Emily Sterling.

Bohi’s second year jump helped fuel Denver’s undefeated run. The goalkeeper holds the fifth-highest save percentage in the NCAA at 52.6% — the highest of all goalies in the Final Four. Although she has yet to face the seven-deep Cats’ onslaught, Bohi’s play would be key to helping her team earn its first national title ticket in program history.

But few possess the fearless, fiery demeanor that Laliberty feeds. The Tufts graduate transfer wasted no time proving she belonged at the major division-one level, giving the Cats a much-needed spark when replacing goalkeeper Madison Doucette.

If the Cats are to pull away with a victory, Laliberty must be at her best, jumpstarting the NU defense. While the stage may be the team’s biggest yet, Amonte Hiller said her goalkeeper steps up when the spotlight shines brightest.

“She is really clutch in big moments, and that’s really fun to have behind you,” Amonte Hiller said. “This team feels like no matter what happens, we’ll all be successful because any position should step up for us.”

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Twitter: @jakeepste1n

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