“It’s not how you start, but it’s how you finish.” This quote, used by musicians, leaders and athletes alike, is often used for a variety of reasons. Whether it’s referring to someone’s hard work to get themselves out of a hole or an underdog coming back from the brink, the end result is often the only thing that matters, regardless of where it came from.
In their NCAA quarterfinal game against Duke (11-8, 4-6 ACC), Northwestern women’s lacrosse (15-0, 11-0 B1G) perfectly represented this remark, winning the game 22-10 after falling behind 6-1 early. Behind dominant performances by junior attacker Izzy Scane and senior attacker Lauren Gilbert, the ’Cats were able to put together one of their most convincing wins of the season, and put themselves back in the NCAA Final Four.
“Just really proud of my team,” Northwestern head coach Kelly Hiller said postgame. “It's not easy to make it to this point, it's not easy to win every game and it's not easy to win convincingly… we went down a little bit today, and fought back; [we] didn't let anything rattle us… whatever it was, we had an answer, and that's what I'm most proud of today's effort.”
Scane and Gilbert were dominant for the ’Cats in the victory. Scane, the NCAA’s leading scorer with 94 goals, notched seven points on the day with five goals and two assists, while Gilbert followed close behind her with six goals of her own, including several shots straight from the highlight reel.
“We just have such a deadly attack, because we have so many threats,” Gilbert said postgame. “So it makes it really hard for other teams to stop, because [if] you slide off one person or face guard one person, someone else is going to open up… Based on how they were playing us, I was able to create some lanes for myself and go to the goal, but it's really just a tribute to how deadly everyone is in our attack.”
Proving Gilbert’s point, sophomore attacker Erin Coykendall and graduate attacker Lindsey McKone also contributed for the ’Cats, with both of them picking up two goals and two assists each.
Critical for Northwestern, as usual, was dominating possession and draw control. Several players picked up key possessions for the ’Cats, including Gilbert, who controlled six draws, graduate midfielder Brennan Dwyer, who controlled five, and McKone and senior midfielder Jill Girardi, who each picked up four. It was especially critical against Duke, who had the third-best draw control in the NCAA this season, with a .625 percentage. Northwestern, winning the battle, won 21 of 34 draws in the matchup; 61.7% of the draws.
“My coach texted me earlier this week, and she said, ‘You need an answer for the draw,’” Hiller said. “And I said, ‘we have multiple answers.’ We have Jill Girardi; we have Brennan Dwyer, we've got Lindsey McKone… our circle play is just tremendous, so we felt very confident going into today in that area… I said to my team, ‘At this point in the season, every team we're going to play against has great draw people. that's just what it takes to be at this level.’”
The game started off with Duke dominance, as the Blue Devils outscored Northwestern 6-1 over the first 12 minutes of the game. While the ’Cats were able to get on the board with a goal by sophmore midfielder Jane Hansen, three goals by Duke's Olivia Carner and a failure to control the game off the ball control had the ’Cats searching for answers at the first timeout of the game.
“Kelly kind of talked to us and basically just said, ‘Nothing's just gonna come, you're gonna have to bust your butts and work for every little play and every little detail.’” Scane said postgame. “I think instead of focusing on what the score was, we just focused on the little things that we work on every day to make us successful… I think our team does a really good job of staying calm in situations like that. There's never a second where we doubt that we're gonna end up back on top.”
Following the wakeup call, the ’Cats began pushing back against the Blue Devils’ attack with goals by first-year attacker Leah Holmes and Scane, but Carner’s fourth goal of the game put Duke up 7-3 at the halfway point of the first-half. Looking to retake control of the game, the ’Cats locked down on defense and refused to let the Devils on goal again, with neither team scoring for almost six minutes.
Finally, with just over ten minutes left to play in the first, the Wildcat offense woke up and began a streak that permanently shifted the momentum of the game, scoring six straight goals over just three minutes to retake the lead, 9-7, and only allowed the Blue Devils to score only once more, finishing the first half on an 11-2 run to take a 12-8 lead into the second half. Critical for the ’Cats over this span were Gilbert, who scored three goals, and Scane, who recorded three goals and two assists.
Riding the momentum from the first half, the ’Cats refused to let up easy on the Blue Devils, and outscored Duke 10-2 in the second half; four coming from Lauren Gilbert, who stepped up as the ’Cats leading scorer after Scane was removed from the game after she picked up two yellow cards. Eight of the ten goals came in the first 21 minutes, which put the ’Cats up ten and allowed the clock to run, letting Northwestern coast to the 22-10 victory.
As previously mentioned, critical for Northwestern was controlling the ball and picking up key possessions. The ’Cats outperformed Duke in almost all offensive categories, with 44 shots to the Blue Devils’ 26, 12 free positions to Duke’s four, and picking up 18 ground balls to Duke’s 9. While they fell behind early, the game was a reminder of Northwestern’s offensive prowess, and served as a message to the rest of the NCAA: no lead is safe against this squad.
In addition to advancing to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament, the win also served as a critical milestone for the ’Cats: their first win over an ACC opponent. The conference dominated the NCAA this season, with five teams making the tournament, and three making the final four: North Carolina, Boston College and Northwestern's semifinal opponent, Syracuse. While more will be written about the potential matchups later this week, the dominating win over Duke may give the ’Cats both confidence and the notoriety needed to advance back to the National Championship.
“It’s awesome, I mean, we're super excited,” Scane said. “I think it's where we're expecting to be this year, just with how hard our team's been working, and the expectations we've set for ourselves… I think it's just another opportunity to keep playing for another week and play more games.”