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Northwestern lacrosse vs. Maryland: A date with destiny in the Elite Eight

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Previewing the Wildcats' biggest game of the year (Sunday, 11 a.m. CT, Big Ten Network).

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

This is it. The rematch we've all been waiting for.

In the wake of Sunday's impressive 16-11 victory over the Notre Dame, Northwestern lacrosse and coach Kelly Amonte Hiller must be licking their chops at the chance to get another shot this Sunday against Maryland -- Amonte Hiller's alma mater, and the top team in the nation. Maryland dismantled the Wildcats in a 16-5 thrashing in the first ever Big Ten women's lacrosse game in late March.

Today we're going to examine a few keys to the game for Northwestern; a few things that will hopefully ensure the game is more of a contest this time around.

Last year's champs, Maryland came into the season as practically the unanimous No. 1 team in the country, and the Terps have back up that ranking. They remained undefeated until a somewhat freak loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament semifinals.

Like Kentucky this past season in college basketball, the Terrapins have been in the spotlight all season long, deflecting every team's best shot and still managing an average margin of victory of over seven goals per game. The team ranks in the top six nationally in scoring offense, scoring defense and draw controls per game. They're one of only three teams to rank in the top 10 in both scoring offense and defense, and they just beat one of the other two, Jacksonville, 13-8 in the first round.

All of which is to say, this Maryland Terrapin team, gunning for a repeat, is a very good lacrosse team. Maybe even historically good. But I'm not telling you to abandon all hope, ye who enter College Park on Sunday. Here are a few reasons why:

Draw controls

Back in March at Lakeside Field, it took only 12 seconds for Maryland to grab a lead. The visiting Terrapins managed to hang a quick one on the home team after controlling the opening draw, followed by some deft passing that led to a clinical finish for their second leading scorer, Taylor Cummings.

But the key in that sequence was the draw control – Maryland can't score if they don't have the ball. And while at that point in the season the draw was a major question mark for Northwestern, these past few games have solidified freshman Shelby Fredericks as Amonte Hiller's first choice in the circle. Since postseason play began, the Wildcats have won the draw control battle against their opponents by a count of 61-36, a marked improvement from the regular season.

While it remains to be seen if this improvement is sustainable, a couple of factors seem to indicate it being more likely than not. The biggest one is simply the learning curve.

After graduating the all-time NCAA draw control leader in Alyssa Leonard, a facet of the game Northwestern fans had begun to take for granted was suddenly opened back up. When Fredericks struggled at times during the year, some questioned whether Amonte Hiller should move on to a new target for the future of Northwestern's draw controls. But Amonte Hiller stuck with her choice and we're seeing that pay off now. After a rigorous season going against some of the top draw specialists in the country, Fredericks has picked up a thing or two and is employing her knowledge now to a devastating effect.

On top of that, going against the assistant coaches and other players day in and day out during practice has surely accelerated the learning. It's not unthinkable that we could be seeing the next great Northwestern draw specialist coming into her own during this postseason. Last time these two teams played, we saw the Terrapins use their experience to dominate the Wildcats in the draw circle, but things should be different this time around.

Let's be clear, it takes a whole team to win a draw, and Fredericks said as much Sunday afternoon when asked about her recent success following the victory over Notre Dame. But the player in the circle has an outsized influence on the outcome of the draw, and if Fredericks' recent play can continue, the Wildcats are never really going to be out of it Sunday. After all, we know Amonte Hiller's favorite saying: "Win the draw, rule the world."

Amonte Hiller

Amonte Hiller is practically without equal as a coach, not only in the lacrosse world but across the entire collegiate sports landscape. Northwestern has been to 10 straight Final Fours and 11 straight NCAA tournaments with Amonte Hiller at the helm, and the Wildcats are now 22-0 at home all-time in NCAA tournament play.

During her time as a player at Maryland, she was not only a two-time national champion, but won back-to-back player of the year awards for her pivotal performances on those Terrapin teams. And she uses that experience well. She was a phenomenal two-way player, and stout defenses have always been hallmarks of her teams at NU. In that regard, Amonte Hiller is probably hoping for a low-scoring game, one in which the two teams grind it out and a late bit of inspiration seals the deal. Expect the Wildcat's defense to pack it in around the goal and try to bend not break against this talented Maryland attack.

The other aspect where we can really see Amonte Hiller's impact is with in-game adjustments. We have seen it in both NCAA tournament games already: Northwestern goes into the half looking a little lost, but whatever Amonte Hiller says at halftime sparks the team. A tweak here and a twist there, and suddenly, the team is up three goals and we wonder how we could have doubted her.

This was especially clear in the Notre Dame game. It was 7-7 going into the break (some might say Northwestern was lucky to be tied) and there was a nervous air about Lakeside Field as people contemplated how they might react to Amonte Hiller's first ever home NCAA tournament loss.

But Northwestern came out in the second half and slotted freshman Corinne Wessels behind the net where she was able to find cutting Wildcats for two quick scores, and then Lasota added another and suddenly it was 10-7 and NU had some breathing room.

So if Northwestern finds itself behind in the first half, just remember: when Amonte Hiller gets her hands on the team at halftime, she is bound to find the right solution.

Secondary scoring

Selena Lasota is a phenomenal lacrosse player. Even as she struggled in recent games, even as she monopolized the attention of opposing defenses, we knew she would find a way to get her goals. But the big question for the Wildcats was who else was going to step up to force defenses to contend with multiple threats?

Throughout the season, we saw different players step up when Lasota was taken away as an option. Defender Sheila Nesselbush has shown nice touch around the goal, finishing fifth on the team with 25 goals. Senior Kara Mupo is always going to be dangerous on the offensive end, but injuries have slowed her down somewhat this year. Freshman Corinne Wessels is turning into a playmaker from behind the net, dishing out assists and getting her own goals with aplomb. And junior Kaleigh Craig has notched 45 goals, good for second on the team.

It's clear this Wildcats team has many threats on offense and it was just a matter of figuring out how to fit them all together. These past few games, especially during the second half of the Notre Dame game, we got a glimpse of just how efficient and devastating this offense can be when it's firing on all cylinders.

With junior Christina Esposito acting as the point guard at the top of the fan and Wessels anchoring things behind the net, the Wildcats just may have found the right combination. It remains to be seen if they can continue this high level of play, but if they can emulate the second half performance against Notre Dame on Sunday against Maryland, we could have a memorable Elite Eight matchup on our hands.

At any point while this team has possession, they can do a number of things to you. Esposito gets the ball rolling. Wessels might sneak one in from behind the net or find a cutter for the easy finish. They can clear out for Craig to go galloping towards goal, ball held high and see what she can do. Mupo is always liable to pick up one or two near the net. And of course, there is always the option of just giving the ball to Lasota and getting out of the way.

Prediction

There are reasons to think Northwestern can pull the upset. Fredericks has seemed to turn the corner in the draw circle; the team seems to be firing on all cylinders offensively; and it's tough to bet against Amonte Hiller in the NCAA Tournament. So you know what?

Wildcats 13, Terrapins 11.