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Women's Lacrosse Final Four: Previewing Northwestern vs. Maryland

Last week, we were mourning the loss of regular Northwestern-Florida matchups, with the Wildcats leaving the ALC after this season. But tonight, we will get a taste of an already mature rivalry that will only get better next season. NU and its semifinal opponent, Maryland, will become conference rivals next season when they both join the new Big Ten lacrosse conference. If history is any indication, it’ll be a highlight game every year.

“It’s a really cool prelude with what’s to come in the Big 10 next year,” coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said. “Maryland’s not going anywhere. They’re an incredible program and I have a lot of respect for them.”

The two teams have met three times since 2010, all in the NCAA Tournament. Maryland edged the Cats in the Championship in 2010, then NU got revenge in the title game the next year. In 2012, the Cats knocked the Terrapins out in the semifinals. None of the games ended with more than a two-goal difference.

This is the first time Northwestern enters the game as the true underdog.

“They’re the one to beat,” Amonte Hiller said. “We have to go out there and give it our best effort, play together and for each other. That’s what we did last game. We have to leave it all out on the field.”

The Terrapins have only lost one game this year, a mid-season defeat to the defending national champion, North Carolina (who also defeated Maryland in triple-overtime in the title game last year). They’re anchored by two Tewaaraton Award finalists, junior Megan Douty on defense and sophomore Taylor Cummings as an attacking midfielder.

“Taylor Cummings is really a special player,” Amonte Hiller said. “She’s unbelievable at every aspect of the game. Really so dominant as such a young player.”

While much of the offensive for NU will run through Alyssa Leonard, another player has quietly stepped up as the most consistent goal-scorer on the team. Senior Christy Turner has scored in each of the last 10 games, so she may be the gamechanger against Maryland if Leonard can keep the defensive focus on herself.

Underdog is not a word usually associated with the Cats, but they used it to their advantage last week and will have to do the same tonight.

“A lot of people have doubt in us,” Leonard said. “So we’re ready to prove some people wrong.”

Opening draw is at 6:30 p.m. CT.

- Callie Counsellor

Predictions

13-11 Northwestern

Northwestern has the best timing of any team I’ve ever watched. This seemed like lost season, by NU’s standards, a few weeks ago. In mid-April they lost two in a row to Johns Hopkins and Florida, then again to Florida in the ALC Championship, then barely squeaked by Vanderbilt and Ohio State in the second and third rounds of the NCAA Tournament. This just wasn’t the team that NU fans were accustomed to watching at Lakeside Field.

And then there was Florida, in Gainesville. Not the ideal situation to revamp a team’s confidence. But about midway through the second half, NU’s seniors decided they wanted to win. So they did, by scoring the last seven goals of the match, including Kat DeRonda’s game-winner in overtime. The confidence boost from a win like that can’t be underrated.

This game will ultimately come down to which NU team shows up against Maryland. The one from the second half of the ALC Championship, or the one from the NCAA quarterfinals? Maryland is fast and strikes from all angles on offense with Tewaaraton Award finalist Taylor Cummings, and they are suffocating on defense with Tewaaraton Award finalist Megan Douty. They’ll take advantage of any minuscule mistake NU makes. The Cats have been prone to slow starts this season, and if it happens tonight, they’ll dig themselves a hole they can’t get out of.

Alyssa Leonard against Cummings in the draw circle will be the matchup to watch, though. I say whoever wins that battle, wins her team the game. After Leonard’s performance against Florida (eight draw controls, including two in overtime), I’ll put my money on her.

- Callie Counsellor

INSIDENU JOINS SPORTSNIGHT TO TALK CHAMPIONSHIP WEEKEND

13-10 Maryland

Northwestern is peaking at the perfect time. Not only did the Cats earn a vindicating victory over Florida in the round of eight, but Kelly Amonte Hiller and company secured NU’s first-ever win in Gainesville and snapped the host’s 31-game home winning streak. Some might expect an emotional hangover. I don’t. This was a breakthrough for the Cats.

“We’ve been able to get over that hump at the right time,” Amonte Hiller said at Tuesday’s practice. “To go on the road and get that win was a huge confidence boost for our team.”

But No. 1 Maryland is confident too, and for good reason. Since winning their sixth consecutive ACC championship, the Terrapins (21-1) have cruised to a sixth straight Final Four. Tewaaraton finalists Taylor Cummings and defensive-specialist Megan Douty anchor a talent-laden UM roster. The Terps only start one senior, while the Cats play six. But what the Terps lack in experience they make up with sheer skill. Northwestern has one All-American in Alyssa Leonard—Maryland has six.

Northwestern has six losses this season, five of which came by a single goal. But NU’s only lopsided loss was to Final Four representative Syracuse, a team Maryland tamed twice this season. What’s more, the Final Four is being played in Towson Maryland, where the Terps last defeated NU in the national championship back in 2010. The added benefit of home-field advantage cannot be overlooked.

As for the lacrosse game itself…I expect Leonard to get the better of Cummings in the draw circle and for the Cats to control possession early. But Douty will limit Leonard’s offensive impact and force Kara Mupo to carry the scoring load.

Maryland has the ninth stingiest defense in the nation at 7.86 goals allowed per contest. Unless Kat DeRonda and Jess Carroll combine for at least five goals between them, I don’t foresee the Cats mustering more than 10 scores in this one.

That’s not enough against Maryland’s top-five offense (14.82 goals per game). Northwestern has topped two equally potent offenses in Louisville and Florida, but Maryland poses a more balanced attack. Whereas Florida had one superstar in Shannon Gilroy, Maryland flaunts a plethora of weapons. And NU only has one Kerri Harrington.

“We can’t key in on one particular player we have to stop all of their threats and they have a lot of them,” Amonte Hiller said.

The bottom line is that Maryland is more talented than Northwestern. That doesn’t mean the Cats can’t pull off the upset, but it dampers their chances of an eighth national championship. It’s tough to bet against Amonte Hiller and her 36-3 record in the NCAA tournament. But I’m all in on Maryland. 13-10 Terps.

- Kevin Dukovic