Northwestern faces Final Four challenge against North Carolina

NU needs to make another national title game so SBNation has more pictures of them. - Anthony Gruppuso-US PRESSWIRE

The Wildcats lost to North Carolina 11-8 earlier this year and their last three victories against the Tar Heels have been by just one goal. A ninth straight spot in the title game is anything but a given for Kelly Amonte Hiller's crew.

For the last eight years, Northwestern has made the NCAA women's lacrosse national championship game. Casual fans have come to expect that NU will at least make it to the final, and they have good reason. But the 'Cats face a really tough test in North Carolina on Friday with a trip to the NCAA final at stake.

Northwestern is 19-2 on the season. One of their losses came to Florida, a team that was eliminated by Syracuse in the quarterfinals. Their other loss came to North Carolina on February 22. That doesn't mean that NU will lose to the Tar Heels again, but NU isn't a shoe-in for a spot in the final. I wouldn't call the 'Cats an underdog as reporters from local stations are doing, but these teams are about as close as you can get.

NU is ranked second in both polls and North Carolina is third. Both teams score about 13 goals per game, while giving up around eight. North Carolina is 16-3 with two losses to #1 Maryland and one to #3 Florida. Northwestern is 19-2 with losses to #3 Florida and #5 North Carolina. Since a a 21-7 drubbing in the 2009 National Championship game, this series has been extremely close. The 'Cats have won three of the last four against UNC, but all of those victories have been by a single goal.

NU generally wins games by winning the draw control battle and determining the pace of play. On the rare occasions when they lose, it's usually because they fail to do this. This wasn't the case when the 'Cats lost to UNC earlier this season. Northwestern won the draw control battle 16-5 and Alyssa Leonard had 12 on her own. Both teams had 21 shots. Ultimately, the game came down to North Carolina scoring seven of the first eight goals. NU's defense held UNC to just four goals over the final 45:50, but it was not enough.

There are plenty of reasons to think that this game will be different. If NU has a similar advantage in the draw circle on Friday, they probably won't lose again. With the exception of Florida last year, Northwestern hasn't lost to the same team twice in a season in Kelly Amonte Hiller's tenure. The 'Cats also have a penchant for beating teams they lost to earlier in the season. Since 2005, NU has six postseason victories against teams they lost to in the regular season. The Wildcats have lost 11 total games in that time span. Friday's game will also be at a neutral site in Philadelphia and not Chapel Hill.

North Carolina is led by Tewaaraton Award finalist Kara Cannizzaro. Her 53 goals and 72 points are tops for UNC. She's six points away from setting a school record in points, and the Tar Heels have made four of the last five Final Fours. On an unrelated note, Cannizzaro's brother Sean is in Philadelphia with the University of Denver's men's lacrosse team in the Final Four. Kara Cannizzaro was named a first-team IWLCA All-American along with defender Sloane Serpe. Second-team IWLCA All-American Abby Friend is second on the team in goals with 44.

Another interesting note about North Carolina: former NU player Katrina Dowd is an assistant. Dowd was a three-time national champion and a two-time All-American with Northwestern from 2007-2010. Dowd was an assistant for Syracuse last year. The Orange, of course, lost to Northwestern in the national title game. With all due respect to Katrina, lets hope she's on the losing end of another Final Four match-up against her alma mater.

I still think NU wins this one, but anyone who is assuming the 'Cats will have an easy time making it back to the title game is mistaken. This will be a great game between two evenly matched opponent. The game starts at 4 pm central. You can watch it on ESPN3.com and you can listen to the game on WNUR Sports (89.3 FM in Evanston/Chicago or online at wnursports.com). Pregame for WNUR starts at 3:30 central.

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