If there was any doubt that the overtime game against Penn State in the ALC semifinals motivated Northwestern, it was put to rest in the rematch.
No. 2 NU (19-2) beat No. 7 Penn State (14-7), 15-7, in the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals Saturday night, and it was even more lopsided than the score indicated.
“Just down the stretch, the girls have been really focused and it takes a lot of focus to be able to really put a team away,” coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said. “You have them on the ropes and you’ve really got to get that knockout punch. Earlier in the year, we’ve lacked that focus to be able to get over that hump and I think every single player since our loss to Florida has been really committed. That’s really the difference.”
Senior Gabriella Flibotte led an aggressive defensive effort early, causing four Penn State turnovers on their first four possessions. Meanwhile, the Cats’ offense took advantage of two early free position shots to take a 2-0 lead.
After another forced turnover by Penn State, senior Taylor Thornton took a signature coast-to-coast run up the middle and earned a free position shot. She missed the shot but NU kept possession and Thornton got a second chance, ricocheting the ball off the goalie and into the net.
NU scored twice more, goals from senior Beatrice Conley and junior Kelly Rich, before the Nittany Lions recorded their first shot.
Penn State finally got into the shot and goal column with just over 12 minutes remaining in the first half. It was not enough to shift the momentum, however, as NU rattled off the next six goals to take a nearly insurmountable 11-1 lead with just under two minutes left before halftime.
Eight different players scored the first eight goals for the Cats. Junior Alyssa Leonard notched one of those first eight scores, then knocked in three more before halftime. The four goals were a career-high for the midfielder.
“We talk a lot about, when people come out to play you, just trust yourself to take them on,” Leonard said. “I also have to credit my teammates because it was a lot of ‘draw and dump’ situations and everyone was cutting through hard, dodging hard and giving me that layups so I was kind of doing the easy part and they were really working hard.”
NU slowed down the offense after halftime, playing for time of possession rather than goals. After two free position goals early in the half, NU led 15-3 with 17 minutes left to play. After Amonte Hiller had pulled many of her starters, Penn State scored four goals in the final nine minutes for the 15-7 final score.
Thornton, a finalist for the Sports Illustrated Collegiate Athlete of the Year, recorded a goal, an assist, five ground balls and five draw controls as a lane flew overhead carrying a banner that read “Vote Thornton for SI.com Athlete of the Year,” a campaign led by the NU athletic department.
The decisive victory earned NU a rematch against No. 3 North Carolina (16-3) in the semifinals. The Tar Heels were one of two teams to beat the Cats this year, an 11-8 decision on Feb. 22.
“That game was so long ago,” Flibotte said. “Redemption is sweet. We’re definitely looking to come back hard.”
This is the Cats’ ninth straight trip to the NCAA semifinals. They are 8-0 so far, including a 15-10 victory over North Carolina in the 2010 semifinals.
“It’s really special,” Amonte Hiller said. “People think it’s kind of automatic that we’re going to go to the final four but it’s very hard to get there. Even now, with the expansion of the tournament, there were so many great teams in the tournament and there’s four great teams left and to be one of those four is really an honor.”