Northwestern lacrosse head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller seems to have developed a winning formula late in the season. Superb defense and efficient, drawn-out offensive possessions powered Northwestern (8-3) past the Penn Quakers (6-3), 7-2, in Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon.
After losing three of their first seven games, the Wildcats have won four straight against ranked opponents. Over their first seven contests the Cats scored over 13 goals per game and allowed just over nine goals. During NU’s current streak the Cats have averaged around seven goals per game and allowed just over four goals on defense.
"What we (the defense) keep saying to ourselves is just stay...focused and locked-in," junior goalie Bridget Bianco said. "Our attack is doing a great job having long possessions and waiting for that 100 percent shot in order for us to make sure that we have a goal. That might take a little longer, so as long as we're still focused and locked in and...keeping our legs going, I think we should be fine."
The reigning ALC Defensive Player of the Week, Bianco has been the catalyst for NU’s improved defense. She anchored that Cats defense with eight saves Sunday.
“To have her [Bianco] playing so well is huge for us,”Amonte Hiller said. "When you have someone making big saves like that it gives your whole group a boost.”
Sophomore Kaleigh Craig and senior Kat DeRonda played a part in all of NU's offensive output, combining for four goals and three assists.
The Quakers outplayed the Cats for about the first 15 minutes of play. Penn won the opening draw and scored on their third shot attempt to take the early 1-0 lead two minutes into the game.
NU turned the ball over seven times in the first 12 minutes before Craig netted the equalizer with 17:22 remaining. Penn could not convert on either of its two free possession attempts in a span of 20 seconds. DeRonda gave the Cats the lead at the nine minute mark and Craig scored her team-leading 22nd goal of the season off a free possession goal late in the period to put the NU up 3-1 at halftime.
Goals from DeRonda and senior Alyssa Leonard gave the Cats a 5-1 lead early in the second half. NU cruised from there, holding Penn to just three goals, five below its season average.
Northwestern dominated the possession battle, winning nine of 11 draw controls. Leonard controlled eight of those. The Cats managed 17 shots and seven goals against a stingy Penn defense that has allowed just over eight goals per contest.
It is easy to be concerned with NU’s low scoring numbers over the last two weeks or so. But stellar defense is making up for the scoring lull and it has gotten the Cats back in the winning column.
“We struggled a little in the first half,” Amonte Hiller said. “Defensively we’ve been playing really well. We’re still trying to find a groove offensively. Sorting that out is going to be key and you’ll start to see us put more points on the board. But we’ll take the win.”
The Cats have three more home games until they close out their regular season at Wrigley Field in 20 days. Northwestern returns to Lakeside Field on Thursday to take on Vanderbilt.