Lacrosse: Epstein: No. 1 Northwestern’s collective strength, unity clinches first Championship Sunday shot since 2012


Daily file photo by Seeger Gray

Northwestern races to greet its fans prior to an NCAA Tournament game. The Cats defeated No. 5 Denver 15-7 to advance to their first national championship since 2012.

Jake Epstein, Assistant Sports Editor

CARY, N.C. — Entering Friday’s Final Four faceoff, no team had crossed No. 5 Denver and lived to tell the tale without a blemish on its record.

The premier power west of the Mississippi River had manufactured the most menacing zone defense in the country, toppling three top-five opponents en route to its first NCAA Tournament Final Four in program history.

After the Pioneers (22-1, 6-0 Big East) rushed out to a 4-2 first quarter lead, No. 1 Northwestern looked battered and a step behind its then-undefeated opponent. But just when the Wildcats (20-1, 6-0 Big Ten) appeared to have met their match, a full team effort left no shadow of a doubt, booking NU’s first trip to the national title game in 11 years with a 15-7 victory.

The Cats didn’t reinvent the wheel Friday — rather, coach Kelly Amonte Hiller honed in on her team’s strengths that have fired on all cylinders throughout the season. NU’s starpower delivered goals in bunches, frustrated opposing attackers and silenced a raucous section of Denver diehards.

“I was just really pleased with the (defense),” Amonte Hiller said. “(The Pioneers) stressed us out a bit and were able to capitalize on some opportunities. Then, we made some adjustments, and the team did a tremendous job.”

While graduate student attacker Izzy Scane, senior attacker Erin Coykendall, graduate student attacker Hailey Rhatigan and freshman midfielder Madison Taylor gave the Pioneers more than they could handle on offense, the Cats’ defense stymied a storming squad of scorers.

With graduate student goalkeeper Molly Laliberty building a brick wall between the pipes, NU packed a potent press that left Denver dumbfounded. In her typical All-American fashion, sophomore defender Samantha White covered nearly every blade of manicured grass, scooping ground balls and drawing charges in a manner only a former basketball star could.

“(We) just played really clean, defensive lacrosse,” Amonte Hiller said. “(The defense) was able to cause turnovers with charges, and that’s always what we worked for.”

Every member of the team bought into Friday’s game plan — hustling defensively and playing as if the contest could be their last.

Look no further than Scane, the nation’s top scorer and Tewaaraton Award favorite, who emphatically committed to the ride, rattling some of the NCAA’s top defenders in the process. As Scane goes, the Cats tend to follow, and her eight-point performance is all the more impressive considering her team-high three caused turnovers.

“Going into the game we tried to take our attention away from the talk about Denver’s defense,” Scane said. “They’ve done an amazing job this year … but we really made sure we focused on ourselves as an offense.”

Additionally, NU’s draw team that struggled to get rolling in the opening period bounced back quickly, displaying what sophomore midfielder Samantha Smith called a “15-second memory” prior to the NCAA Tournament. Smith pulled in four of her five draw controls in the latter three quarters, helping the Cats turn a 5-2 draw deficit into a 12-12 split.

Unlike past NCAA semifinals, NU never took its foot off the gas Friday. Although Denver brought the game back within a goal and halted the Cats’ 4-0 run in the third quarter, NU regrouped and returned to play without a hitch, piling on nine consecutive conversions.

The Cats once again showed they can take a punch and hit back with enhanced force. The team’s true threat doesn’t lie in its individual stars; the group’s unity stands tall, regardless of the moment or obstacle.

Despite the unit’s machine-like efficiency, no one seems to put on more of a party than the players — both on and off the field. NU celebrates each goal with infectious passion. The sideline erupts on every statement play, and every player locks in from the moment the whistle blows.

Teams can scheme to silence Scane, rattle Rhatigan or even crowd Coykendall, but Amonte Hiller’s team doesn’t depend on the efforts of one.

All 12 players on the field at any given time carry the same, collective vision. With just one game separating NU from its eighth national championship, it’s difficult to picture the Cats’ leaving without the coveted piece of hardware.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @jakeepste1n

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