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Northwestern puts away Stanford in NCAA second round

And so the quest for an eighth title begins.

Northwestern (18-2) defeated Stanford (14-6), 15-8, at Lakeside Field on Sunday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament after earning a first-round bye as the No. 2 seed.

Taylor Thornton, who was named a finalist for Sport Illustrated’s College Athlete of the Year last week, made a case for herself with three goals, an assist, four ground balls, four draw controls and three caused turnovers.

“Being a senior, I just had the mindset that, next week, I only have 60 minutes guaranteed for me to ever play lacrosse again,” she said. “So every ground ball, draw control, possession could be my last so that’s literally what’s running through my mind every time.”

The midfielder dominated in the crunch time, twice using her speed to blow by a defender and score with Stanford gaining momentum.

The Cardinal struggled to consistently mark all of NU’s attackers. Though they held leading scorer Erin Fitzgerald in check with no goals or assists, that left junior Alyssa Leonard and senior Ali Cassera with some space, along with Thornton. Each notched three scores.

“I just talked to (Fitzgerald) this week about having patience and knowing that if she doesn’t have goals on the board and we’re winning, that’s the most important thing,” coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said. “She’s taking away their best defender for us. She attracts a lot of attention defensively, so she’s helping us out no matter what happens. She played smart today.”

In addition to the three goals, Leonard dominated the circle, winning eight draw controls, which has been a point of emphasis for the Wildcats this season. Overall, NU won 18 of 24 draw controls including 12 of 14 in the second half.

In their last matchup, on April 14, the two teams tied with 11 draw controls each. NU held a one-goal halftime lead before slowly pulling away in the second half. Sunday’s game vaguely followed the same script, though NU’s second half on Sunday was even more dominant than their second half a month ago.

Both teams committed several sloppy plays in the first half on Sunday, with Stanford turning the ball over nine times and NU close behind with eight.

“We talked about that at half time,” Amonte Hiller said. “We talked about just doing a better job on the draws. We had to play a lot of defense there towards the beginning of the game. That oftentimes happens in your first NCAA game, especially since those guys had a dry run on Friday night. We just need to make sure that from here on out we make good decisions, good possessions and just continue to do the things that we’re doing well.”

Each team also made costly mental errors. With 20 minutes left in the first half and the Cats leading 1-0, NU’s defense tried to clear the ball from their defensive zone but it was intercepted at the top of the fan, leading to an easy tying goal for the Cardinal.

Similarly, with just over five minutes left in the first half, NU was called for an offensive foul, giving Stanford possession in front of their own goal. The Cardinal turned it over, and Leonard snagged the ground ball and scored to tie the game at four.

Leonard scored again less than a minute later and Thornton added a goal just before half to give the Cats a 6-4 lead heading into the break.

Stanford brought the game within one just after halftime, but NU tallied seven of the next eight goals to break the game open. They took control by winning draw controls and taking advantage of Stanford’s spread defense, which the Cardinal utilized to try to force turnovers in the midfield.

Seven different players scored for the Cats, including two goals from junior Kate Macdonald, a career-high for the midfielder.

“Our offense is really starting to play for one another and I think it’s showing,” Leonard said. “People are passing the ball and getting through. We’re really opening up opportunities and we’re being patient and taking our time and getting those easier shots. (We’re) just able to play together.”

NU moves on to the quarterfinals to take on No. 7 Penn State (13-6), who beat Massachusetts 12-9 on Sunday. The two teams last met in the semifinals of the ALC Tournament, when Leonard hit the game-winning shot in overtime to send the Cats to the championship. The game will take place next Saturday at Lakeside Field.