On a rainy Senior Day at Lakeside Field, No. 9 Northwestern (11-5, 3-2) used a balanced offensive attack and strong play from its defense to dominate No. 20 Ohio State (11-6, 2-3) in the regular season finale for both teams.
The Wildcats put in an absolutely dominant second half to solidify their lead and wound up winning by double digits, 16-6, in a game that was even more lopsided than the score indicated. With the victory Northwestern leapfrogged OSU in the standings to clinch the third seed, behind Penn State (2) and Maryland (1), in next week's Big Ten tournament.
After a disappointing effort last week against Penn State, coach Kelly Amonte Hiller was glad to see the team compete for the full 60 minutes today and is optimistic heading into Piscataway next week.
"This is what we hoped for," Amonte Hiller said. "It was a good step forward and hopefully a good momentum builder into the tournament."
With the conditions what they were–namely, rainy and cold–it was always going to be a sloppy game and the teams did not disappoint in that respect, combining for 17 turnovers in the first half alone. Both sides threw errantly on simple passes and had a hard time corralling ground balls on the slippery turf, but cleaned things up somewhat in the second half, combining for only five turnovers.
However, the Wildcats were able to make the most of their chances when they came, scoring 16 goals on 25 shots and going 2-4 on free position shots.
In addition, veteran leader Bridget Bianco put in a very strong performance on her Senior Day with 10 saves in the game. She had a number of impressive stops to halt the Buckeyes when they had numbers and were attacking in transition, quelling any momentum the visiting team was hoping to build. Bianco was pulled with about 10 minutes to play in the game, allowing fellow senior Brooke Jones some playing time late. Jones also had a number of impressive saves.
"It's a stepping stone," Bianco said. "We have to keep the momentum going. This game is great, we won and it was Senior Day, but it's over. Now we have the Big Ten tournament so we have to take it as a momentum building step."
Another impressive defensive performance came from freshman Ally Mueller, shutting down OSU's Jackie Cifarelli–whose 46 assists on the year rank as tied for the most in the country. The senior finished without a point on the day, surely disappointed to end her regular season that way. Mueller has seen increased playing time as of late, and veterans of the program note this is an Amonte Hiller specialty: finding a gem down the depth chart late in the season to give the team a boost as it heads into postseason play.
"Ally has been playing and progressively getting better and better and more confident," Amonte Hiller said. "She did a fantastic job out there today. She had a lot of preparation in practice. If we can keep the environment in practice so competitive, then these kids are ready for the moment when it comes."
It was a balanced offensive attack that carried the day for Northwestern. Seven goals were assisted and eight different players scored the 16 goals.
Senior Kara Mupo, the only sleeveless Wildcat on an overcast, 40 degree day, capped her impressive regular season career with a strong performance, finishing with a hat trick and an assist for a four-point day.
"It's nice," Mupo said. "But we focused a lot this week on getting ourselves into the best position possible for the Big Tens so Senior Day was nice, this was a really nice day to honor all the hard work we've put in but today the big focus was positioning ourselves for the postseason."
Sophomore Sheila Nesselbush also finished with a hat trick and an assist, netting a four-point day herself. Freshman Corinne Wessels had a huge day, adding two goals and three assists for a five-point day while fellow freshman Selena Lasota notched two goals and an assist.
This game has to make Amonte Hiller and the team feel good heading into the Big Ten tournament. The team looked a little shaky ending the regular season, but this comprehensive victory over a ranked team couldn't have come at a better time for the Wildcats and they'll look to build on this performance heading into the postseason. The team looked excellent in all facets of the game today and demonstrated the immense depth they have when Northwestern's third stringers were going toe-to-toe with the Buckeye's starters.
This was the last regular season game for the Wildcats who now head to Piscataway, NJ next week for the Big Ten tournament where they'll face either Michigan or Rutgers in the first round.