Northwestern lacrosse is developing a habit, and it's about as bad a habit as a team could possibly develop: NU can't put together a full 60 minutes.
The Wildcats (10-5, 2-2) again found themselves in hole at halftime Sunday against Penn State, and this one too proved too large for the young team to overcome. Northwestern was down 10-4 at the half and never came closer than within four after the break, losing 14-10 to No. 12 Penn State (12-3, 4-0).
"I don't think we came out ready to play," junior Kaleigh Craig said. "They did. These teams come out and treat this game like it is literally their national championship and we're not and it's hurting us."
Northwestern opened the second half on fire, scoring four straight, including three in just 1:09 of game-time as they did their best to close the gap.
"We were able to come up with some draw controls which gave us some momentum but we couldn't finish it," coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said. "We had it close, we had an opportunity to cut it to three and didn't shoot well. You have to step up if you want to be a winner and we weren't a winner today."
The first goal of the 4-0 second-half run was a Selena Lasota free position rocket. She finished the game with two goals. However, the Nittany Lions did perhaps the best of any opponent on the year of shutting Lasota down. They face-guarded her, and when she did get the ball sent double teams at her.
And soon enough after Northwestern's run, Penn State answered with a 4-0 run of their own, inflating their lead back to six and killing any momentum Northwestern had built up. After that, the Wildcats scored two of their own, both assisted by junior Christina Esposito, but it was again too little, too late and the final score was set for the final 10 minutes of play: 14-10, Penn State.
Today was an exercise in two different offensive philosophies and on this occasion, Penn State coach Missy Doherty's balanced approach prevailed.
Penn State shared the ball, with six different players scoring and six of their 14 goals assisted to emerge victorious. Maggie McCormick, their leading assister and catalyst for the offense, did have four of them. In general though, the Nittany Lions moved the ball quickly around the perimeter before finding a cutter who would usually catch and shoot in one motion before NU's defense, or goalie Bridget Bianco, had a chance to react.
On the other hand, Northwestern's approach can typically be likened to more of a dribble drive offense and today that didn't prove effective against the Nittany Lion's unbending defense. The visiting team did a tremendous job against Lasota, taking away Northwestern's leading goal scorer for long portions of the game. They had one player stay with Lasota no matter where she went on the field. While a lot of teams do this against Lasota, Penn State for the most part rendered her ineffective.
The Nittany Lions certainly came to play today and leave Evanston having turned some heads. They go into next weekend's matchup with Maryland undefeated in Big Ten play, making this a huge game for both teams vying for the top seed in the Big Ten Tournament coming up in a few weeks in Piscataway, N.J.
Another troubling trend for Northwestern is coming out of the gates slow. They've done it a few times this season, but it got them in trouble at Stony Brook when they couldn't quite come all the way back, and it got them in trouble again Sunday.
"We have to come ready to play," Amonte Hiller said. "We talked about it a million times, we talked about it, we focused on it, but this team, for some reason just thinks it's going to happen for them. You have to come ready to play every time you step out on the field, you can't just expect it to come to you."
This was a big game for both teams and as such, a big loss for the Wildcats. They're now 2-2 in the Big Ten and in danger of potentially not hosting a game in the NCAA tournament. They play Ohio State next Saturday in what will be another tough game. The Buckeyes are currently ranked No. 13. Penn State, on the other hand, remained undefeated in conference play and tied with No. 1 Maryland atop the Big Ten, two games ahead of Northwestern.