April 25, 2009

Lake Monsters: Northwestern Hands Penn First Defeat

by Chris Gentilviso | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Hannah Nielsen scored three of her four goals in the second half to lead No. 1 Northwestern over No. 3 Penn.
© TD Paulius

EVANSTON, Ill. --  Two undefeated teams arrived at Lakeside Field on Saturday, possessing two different agendas.

As the top scoring offense in the nation, No. 1 Northwestern had notions of erasing last season’s disappointing 11-7 loss to Penn in its regular season finale.

As the top scoring defense in the nation, No. 3 Penn had notions of erasing last season’s disappointing 10-6 loss to Northwestern in the NCAA Championship game.

The Wildcats executed their agenda, using a four-goal second-half spurt from junior Katrina Dowd and senior Hannah Nielsen to walk away with an 11-9 victory over the Quakers on Saturday night.

The different result had much to do with Northwestern’s ability to control possession.

“I felt like when we did have the ball, we could put it in the net,” Penn coach Karin Brower said. “We need to have the ball a lot more to win that game.”

Northwestern (16-0, 4-0 ALC) had little trouble with Penn’s heralded defense over the first 10 minutes, mounting a 3-0 lead on a pair of quick-stick goals by Dowd and junior Danielle Spencer, and a free-position conversion from freshman Alexandra Frank.

“We were really able to take the wind out of their sails right off the bat,” Northwestern coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said. “We made some offensive opportunities for ourselves and were really able to take advantage.”

But over the next 10 minutes, the Wildcats lost that advantage. The Quakers used their speed to race to a 5-0 run of their own, headed by two goals apiece from Kaitlyn Lombardo and Emma Spiro. Penn (13-1, 7-0 Ivy League) also profited from a lopsided first-half foul differential of 15-6, which saw two yellow cards lead to the final goal over that stretch.

For the first time this season, the Wildcats trailed at halftime, 6-5, and much of that had to do with poor play on draw controls. The Quakers won seven of the first 12 chances, leading to a 10-6 advantage in shots entering the break.

It was nothing but a wake-up call for Dowd and her teammates.

“We needed to know that they can both score and have a great defense, so we needed to possess,” Dowd said.

Dowd continued picked up the slack on the Northwestern attack without senior leader Hilary Bowen. With a hat trick Saturday, the junior has 45 goals in 14 starts this season. By comparison, before tearing her ACL in her left knee against California on April 4, Bowen had 48 goals in 12 starts.

When the game’s crucial minutes arrived, Nielsen took center stage. Coming off her first game this season without a goal against Ohio State last Wednesday, she was aware of the adjustments she needed to make.

“I didn’t think I was putting a lot of pressure on the defense,” Nielsen said. “I came into that game thinking I needed to dodge more and create more pressure to open other girls up.”

With 17 minutes remaining in the game and the two teams knotted at seven, Nielsen did just that, shifting past the Penn defense with an acrobatic underhanded goal. Four minutes later, she got a step on her defender and slipped a goal past Penn goalkeeper Emily Szelest, upping the lead to 9-7.

As the defense’s attention shifted to her scoring ability, Nielsen shifted to her passing game. Streaking into the offensive zone, she fired a rocket from way outside the fan to Dowd at the edge of the crease, giving the Wildcats an 11-7 lead with seven-plus minutes remaining. Nielsen finished with a team-high seven points, including three assists to pad her NCAA record to 201.

More importantly, Nielsen’s play capped a 4-0 run that spanned more than 13 minutes in the second half. That control down the stretch was a product of the Wildcats winning seven of the final 10 draws.

With arguably the best poise from her team this season, Amonte Hiller saw this game as a model that will aid Northwestern in its quest to win a fifth straight national title.

“That's really the first time we’ve been able to successfully stall,” Amonte Hiller said. We didn’t do it against Virginia and I think that experience is really going to help us down the stretch.”


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