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Northwestern gears up for third shot at beating Florida

Third time’s the charm, or bad things come in threes?

One of these old idioms will play out for Northwestern on Saturday when they take on Florida for the third time this season in the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament.

The teams have already matched up twice this season, with the Gators coming out on top by one point both times. In the last game, the ALC Championship, NU dropped a five-goal lead in the second half to lose just its second-ever ALC Tournament (the last one also being to Florida in 2012). Now the Cats get their third shot at cracking the Gator’s code.

There’s not much point to poring over the two teams’ strength and weaknesses; both squads know each other so well that they’ll have gameplans to exploit every possible advantage.

“We’re more able to focus on ourselves than focusing on them,” senior midfielder Kate Macdonald said,  “because we already know their tendencies and are working our game plan around how we’ve played them in the past and what worked and what didn’t work.”

What didn’t work last time was basically everything in the second half, and it started in the draw circle. NU lost its edge in draws after halftime and the Florida took advantage, scoring the first two goals of the second half to start its comeback.

This is where Alyssa Leonard comes in. She has already beaten her own school record for most draw controls in a season with 153 this year, and 20 of those have come against Florida. The Gators have the second-best offense in the country but they can’t score if they don’t have the ball. The top priority for NU should be draw controls.

The most important players to keep an eye will be ALC Rookie of the Year Sammi Burgess and ALC Tournament MVP Shannon Gilroy, who’s also the nation’s leading scorer. The duo has scored nine of Florida’s 21 goals in the two previous games against NU. The Cats’ premier faceguarder, Kerri Herrington, can only cover one of them at a time, so someone else from NU’s defense will have to step up to the plate if NU is going to corral Florida’s offense.

Another big factor will be the crowd. Gainesville will come out strong for the game on Saturday, and NU isn’t used to playing road games in the NCAA Tournament. But the Cats aren’t totally new to playing at Dizney Lacrosse Stadium.

“We know the atmosphere,” coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said. “They have a great atmosphere down there and it’s a great stadium and a lot of these girls have played in an ALC Championship there and regular season games so there’s a lot of experience down there. We know what to expect, which is a good thing.”

Ultimately, since these two teams know each other so well, there will be very few surprises from either side. This game will come down to who wants it more.

Having lost to them twice, I think this is the perfect match up for us,” Macdonald said. “There’s no one else we’d want to play more.”

The game starts at 1 p.m. Saturday.