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Mupo, Leonard lift Cats past Louisville, into NCAA quarterfinals

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That is now Northwestern’s home record in NCAA tournament play after the Wildcats clipped Louisville 11-8 to advance to a quarterfinal matchup with rival Florida.

The Cats held the nation’s fifth highest-scoring offense to seven goals below its season average. NU also snapped Louisville’s 12-game winning streak.

“I’m very excited to make it into the next round,” coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said. “We had some really great moments. I’m really proud of our defense in the first half and how we stopped such an explosive team. I’m excited with the way we played and to have another opportunity [in the next round].”

InsideNU's Kevin Dukovic (@kdukovic) discusses Northwestern's win and weighs the Wildcats' chances moving forward on WNUR's The SportsVoice

The NU defense limited Louisville’s explosive duo of Nikki Boltja (71 goals and 27 assists) and Fave Brust (69 goals and 7 assists) to a combined two goals and two assists. Senior defender Kerri Harrington face guarded Boltja for all 60 minutes and held Louisville’s leading scorer without a goal for the first time this season.

“Nikki’s a really great player,” Harrington said. “It’s my job to keep the ball out of her hands but it’s the defense and Bridget [Bianco] that kept her scoreless. As a defense we did a great job of protecting our home.”

One of the big questions coming into Sunday’s game was who would have the edge in the draw circle, senior Alyssa Leonard, who averages eight draw controls per game, or UL’s budding draw specialist, sophomore Kaylin Morissette, who averages 8.7 per contest. Leonard put that question to bed early, winning five of the first seven draw controls. Leonard finished with 13 draw controls to Morissette’s six.

“Morissette is probably one of the toughest in the country and Alyssa showed her talent today,” Amonte Hiller said.

“Leonard is excellent on the draw,” Louisville coach Kellie Young said after the loss. “A great matchup today between two very good centers and Leonard had a great day. Giving their attack possession [gave] them opportunities to score.”

Junior Kara Mupo made the most of those opportunities to net a game-high four goals, all of which came in the second half.

Even though UL held Leonard and Mupo scoreless in the first half, the Cats possessed the halftime advantage, 4-3 thanks to contributions from some unlikely players.

One of those contributors was junior Jess Carroll, who scored the first goal of the game just over a minute into the contest. But it was Louisville who controlled the tempo early on.

“[Louisville] is very fast, aggressive and effective and we had to adjust to how hard they were going out in transition,” Amonte Hiller said.

Sophomore midfielder Cortnee Daley was the beneficiary of that blistering pace, scoring three of her team-high four goals in a span of 10 minutes to give the Cardinals a 3-1 lead with 18:11 left in the first half.

However, Leonard maintained the edge in the draw circle and it was only a matter of time before the Cats cashed in.

“Once we stopped their initial push we were able to force some turnovers,” Amonte Hiller said.

Freshman Sheila Nesselbush scored an unassisted goal off of one of those turnovers to cut the score to 3-2 with 12:43 left.

“Sheila plays with a ton of confidence for a freshman,” Mupo said post-game.

Then, after another Leonard draw control, again it was Carroll, who burned past her defender and flipped the ball by the keeper to score her eighth goal of the season and tie the game at 3-3.

“Having [Carroll] come out and set the tone gave everyone confidence and we all thrived off of that,” Mupo said.

Sophomore Lauren Murray added an 8-meter free position goal with 4:13 left to give the Cats a 4-3 lead at the break.

NU’s second half scoring came from some more familiar faces. After Morissette and Daley gave UL its last lead of the game at 5-4 five minutes in, Mupo caught fire.

A three-second call on the Cards gave Mupo a 8-meter chance, which she buried. Then before UL could catch its breath, Leonard won the subsequent draw, pushed it down the field, found Kate Macdonald who swung the ball to an open Mupo, who then put it away to score her second goal in 10 seconds.

Leonard scored a minute later to give the Cats a 7-5 lead. After another Mupo score, Brust managed to convert two free-position shots.

Following a Christy Turner score Louisville nearly came within one, when Daley’s fifth goal was disallowed because of a crease violation. That was the closest UL got from there.

Leonard bounced a beauty by the keeper and Mupo scored her fourth goal of the game three minutes after to seal the victory.

“We wanted to stay aggressive and push the ball in transition,” Mupo said. “We were really effective because all seven people on offense were a threat, cutting dodging hard. Today we had really good team offense.”

Louisville was just two days removed from a thrilling double overtime win over Ohio State. So Northwestern defended hyper-aggressively, making the Cards work for every inch.

“I think the double overtime game was a factor,” UL sophomore Laura Patterson admitted. “And it was a great game plan for Northwestern to play a black defense.”

While her players were slightly physically fatigued, Young thought they were more mentally exhausted from the OSU game.

“I think our legs got the better of us and Northwestern played well enough to beat us,” Young said. “Our bodies were ready to compete today but maybe the mental fatigued stepped in a little bit. We committed some [uncharacteristic] turnovers. We needed to play a little bit cleaner and we didn’t.”

Northwestern now advances to take on No. 4 Florida, who beat Denver 19-9. It will be a rematch of last week's ALC Championship game, and the third time the conference rivals will meet this season. NU has yet to win, though both were one-goal contests.

“Florida’s going to want it badly too,” Amonte Hiller said. "We have to play well and do our thing. We have a lot of motivation losing two one-goal games to them.”

The Gators host the Wildcats Saturday at 1 p.m. central time for a spot in the Final Four.

Sunday marked NU’s last home game this season and the last game at Lakeside Field for each of NU’s nine seniors.

With 12 seconds remaining in Sunday’s game the referees stopped the action for a few minutes to consult on a pending penalty.

In a team huddle on the field Harrington addressed her fellow seniors.

“That last 12 seconds we all took a big breath,” she said. “I looked at the seniors and told them ‘let’s enjoy these last 12 seconds.’ It was nice to take a deep breath, enjoy the setting and really soak it in. But hopefully we have a lot of lacrosse ahead.”