Northwestern advances to NCAA quarterfinals with win over Stanford

Taylor Thornton is good at lacrosse. - Anthony Gruppuso-US PRESSWIRE

Kelly Amonte Hiller's crew defeated Stanford 15-8 on Sunday behind hat tricks from Taylor Thornton, Ali Cassera and Alyssa Leonard. They'll play Penn State with a trip to the Final Four on the line next Saturday at Lakeside Field.

Coming into Saturday, Stanford had beaten three teams they lost to earlier in the year. But none of those teams were the defending national champions. Northwestern did away with Stanford Sunday thanks to a dominating second half performance at Lakeside Field. Box score is here and you can check out my video recap here (shameless self-promotion!).

This game was almost a carbon copy of the first meeting between these two teams on April 14. Stanford battled hard early and held a brief first half lead before the 'Cats pulled away in the second. Consecutive goals from Meg Lentz and Lucy Dikeou gave Stanford a 4-3 lead with 8:46 left in the first half. They led for about three minutes until Alyssa Leonard scored two goals in less than a minute to give NU a lead they held onto for the rest of the game.

Northwestern had a 6-4 advantage going into halftime and the lead was still two about 10 minutes into the second period. Then the 'Cats took control with five straight goals. Kate Macdonald scored her second goal of the game (a career high) to complete the run and NU was up by seven, which turned out to be the final margin.

The game was physical in the final moments, with Stanford picking up a pair of yellow cards in the final two minutes. Overall, the Cardinal received five yellow cards (NU got none) and committed 30 fouls (to NU's 15).

Northwestern got hat tricks from seniors Taylor Thornton, Ali Cassera and Alyssa Leonard. Thornton in particular was sublime. She scored three goals and added her third assist of the year. Once she beats her defender, there's no stopping her. Her combination of size (she's listed at 5'9") and speed makes her almost impossible to defend. When defenders stepped out to stop her, she laid off a perfect pass to Kelly Rich inside the arc for an easy goal.

The 'Cats also got a great performance from Alyssa Leonard, but she left the game after a collision with Stanford's Megan Lerner late in the second half. After a draw, Leonard leaped for the ball, but came down tumbling after making contact with Lerner's stick. The senior walked off the field without any help from NU's training staff, but did not return. It might have been precautionary as NU was up big at the time, but it is still cause for concern. The 'Cats looked less formidable with freshman Lauren Murray in the circle. Leonard had an impressive eight draw controls on the day before leaving, bringing her career total to 301.

The defense was solid as usual, giving up just eight goals to a Stanford team that averaged over 14 during the regular season. The Cardinal were only held to under 10 goals five times this season and two were when they faced Northwestern.

Goalie Bridget Bianco didn't face much trouble, but made four saves. She made a couple mental mistakes, though. A bad pass in the first half led to a turnover and goal by Stanford's Kyle Fraser. In the second half, she was called for a 10 second violation (holding the ball in the goalie circle for 10 seconds without passing it). Julia Burns scored for the Cardinal on the ensuing possession. Bianco has been great all season so those are probably anomalies rather than something to worry about.

Northwestern outshot Stanford 29-15, but the 'Cats won this game in the draw circle. Northwestern had three times as many draw controls as Stanford, and had a 12-2 advantage over the Cardinal in the second half. For that reason, Alyssa Leonard's status for next weekend's game is very important.

Penn State earned the right to face NU for the third time this year in the NCAA quarterfinals with a 12-9 victory over UMass today. NU has already beaten the Nittany Lions twice, but by just a combined three goals. The 'Cats needed overtime to defeat Penn State in the semifinals of the ALC tournament.

The game is at 7 pm on Saturday, May 18 at Lakeside Field. It will be their final 2013 game in Evanston, where they are 18-0 all-time in the NCAA tournament.

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