Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Daily file photo by Henry Frieman
Graduate student attacker Izzy Scane fires a free-position shot during her team’s early March matchup with Denver.

After nabbing its second consecutive Big Ten title Saturday in a 14-12 championship victory over Penn State, Northwestern received the NCAA Tournament’s No. 1 seed during Sunday’s selection show. Sitting atop the 29-team field’s totem pole, coach Kelly Amonte Hiller’s squad received a first-round bye and home-field advantage through the quarterfinals.

The Wildcats (15-2, 5-1 Big Ten) await the result of Friday afternoon’s first-round faceoff between Denver and Stanford to find out their next opponent. NU boasts familiarity with both groups: the ’Cats downed the Pioneers (15-3, 5-0 Big East) in a 14-10 March melee and clashed with the Cardinal (13-4, 7-0 Pac-12) in a preseason exhibition.

When Stanford and Denver met in Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium on March 17, the Pioneers prevailed 10-6. However, much has changed since the defensive nonconference battle, and NU will likely have its work cut out against the victors Sunday at Martin Stadium.

As the ’Cats prepare for their Sunday showdown with an undetermined foe, here are the storylines and difference-makers to key in on Friday — and beyond.

Tournament resumes

Both squads enter Evanston’s first-round site as NCAA Tournament automatic qualifiers, winning their respective conference tournaments. Denver would’ve likely received an at-large bid had it collapsed against UConn Saturday, but its Pac-12 opponent had no guarantees entering its championship clash.

After falling to Maryland and NU in consecutive games, the Pioneers have ripped off 12 consecutive victories to close the regular season and Big East Tournament play. Denver’s other loss was an early-season defeat at Michigan, another NCAA Tournament team.

The Pioneers picked up a momentous 8-7 victory over Stony Brook, marking the Seawolves’ first home loss since March 23, 2019. Another key win came against No. 6 Yale in a 12-11 neutral site result.

The Cardinal opened its season with one-goal losses to Yale and Virginia but proceeded to win five consecutive games before its defeat at Denver. The team’s other loss came against Stony Brook, which secured an 11-10 overtime victory.

Stanford coach Danielle Spencer’s squad is 0-4 against NCAA Tournament opponents, though the Cardinal established significant superiority out west this year.

Players to watch

Denver defender Trinity McPherson took home Big East Defensive Player of the Year honors this season, and the graduate student has been a bona fide dynamo for the Pioneers since her arrival in 2023. 

The one-woman-clear in last season’s Final Four against the ’Cats epitomized her game-breaking speed in transition, and the Baltimore native is a nightmare for opposing attacks. She has pulled down 77 draw controls, scooped 39 ground balls and recorded 36 caused turnovers in 18 starts.

Pioneer attacker Julia Gilbert spearheads her scoring unit, having tallied 57 goals and 12 assists this season. Her last trip to Evanston didn’t live up to her typical production, as NU held her to just one goal on five shots.

Cardinal attacker Aliya Polisky has put forth a standout campaign during her first season in Palo Alto, piling on 50 goals and 17 assists. A crafty left-hander with a lethal end product, Polisky may possess ample firepower to defeat Denver.

The Pac-12 Freshman of the Year played under Amonte Hiller on the U.S. U20 Training Team in summer and fall 2023. She has tallied at least three points in 12 of 16 games this season.

Stanford goalkeeper Lucy Pearson boasts a .471 save percentage, and she has posted more than 10 saves in five contests. The sophomore received conference goalkeeper of the year honors and significantly improved toward the season’s final stretch.

Storylines of note

Pioneer defender Sam Thacker was the central piece to Denver’s suffocating zone scheme last season, but she hasn’t played since suffering a lower-body injury against Colorado on April 3. Thacker recorded 21 ground balls and 19 caused turnovers before that point.

If the 5-foot-6 graduate student can’t compete Friday, her absence will likely loom large in a high-stakes environment. The Pioneers have weathered the storm in seven games sans Thacker, but a late UConn push Sunday signaled cracks in their defensive foundation.

Stanford hasn’t reached the NCAA Tournament’s second round since 2013, and Spencer will look to reach the stage after the Cardinal lost record-breaking points scorer Ashley Humphrey to UNC in the transfer portal after last season.

NU is a combined 17-1 against the two teams, and both would have a tall task ahead following a Friday win.

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