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Northwestern rides vaunted defense to second round of NCAA Tournament with dominating win over Kent State

The Wildcats took advantage of every opportunity afforded to them in their route of Kent State on Saturday.

On a crisp autumn afternoon in Evanston, Northwestern opened their NCAA Tournament schedule with a 2-0 victory over the Kent State Golden Flashes.

It was a matchup of two 2016 conference champions: the best defensive team in the nation (Northwestern) from the Big Ten, and a fairly prolific offense in Kent State out of the Mid-American Conference (MAC). Something had to give. Fortunately for the home side, a combination of discipline, patience and aggressive attacking football was enough to push them past the Kent State and into the second round of the tournament.

Most of the action in this one occurred in the first half, where two of the three goals in the contest were scored. Five minutes after the opening tip, Hayden Pascoe flicked a well-timed ball past Lauren “a literal brick wall” Clem, much to the shock of the full crowd at Martin Stadium. However, to the dismay of the raucous subset of Kent State supporters in attendance, the goal was immediately negated by an offsides flag.

Despite Northwestern controlling possession for much of the first half, it was Kent State who boasted the majority of chances early on. That is, until the 18th minute when, on Northwestern’s second corner kick opportunity of the match, Kayla Sharples re-directed a precise cross from Marisa Viggiano goalward with her head. The shot leaked through a swarm of yellow-clad legs and past Kent State keeper Ashleigh McDonald before finding its final resting place in the back of the net. Northwestern led 1-0.

The home side wasted no time adding to their advantage. Emboldened by the strength of their back line and keeper (Northwestern has conceded just six goals this season, best in the nation), the Wildcats continued to push and found another opportunity from the penalty spot just two minutes after striking first blood. McDonald was whistled for a foul in the box after failing to corral a dangerous ball coming across the goal line and taking the legs out from underneath Grace Orndorff while attempting to recover. Nandi Mehta stepped to the spot and effortlessly slotted the ball in the top left corner, putting Northwestern up 2-0 and on the track to advance.

Much of the remainder of the mach was played in the middle third of the field, with each side occasionally pushing forward; Northwestern looking to drive the final nail through the proverbial coffin that was Kent State’s season and the Golden Flashes trying everything to crawl back into contention.

“We’ve been fantastic defensively so any type of a lead we get gives us an awful lot of confidence,” Northwestern head coach Michael Moynihan said. “We don’t want to get into a position where we’re just sitting on leads, and that was a big point today: we want to keep hungry and keep being on the aggressive side.”

This point of emphasis culminated in a third and final goal for Northwestern with just over seven minutes to play in the contest. A beautifully played ball across the face of the goal by Rachel Zampa found the foot of Kassidy Gorman, who tapped in her fifth goal of the season to give Northwestern a 3-0 lead.

It just wasn’t in the cards for the visitors on this night. Even as Kent State coach Rob Marinaro utilized select substitutions to switch their gameplan to a more attacking style, Northwestern’s defense remained regimented. Kayla Sharples will undoubtedly haunt Kent State leading scorer Jenna Hellstrom’s (14 goals in 2016) dreams tonight. The Wildcat back was there virtually every time Hellstrom found any patch of open field and Clem racked up five relatively easy saves on the night by virtue of a few desperate attempts from distance by the Golden Flash attackers.

“She’s given a lot of other teams a ton of problems,” Sharples said of Hellstrom post-game. “We know we have the defense from the back line, but also all the way through the forwards, so having that in our back pocket throughout the game really helped us.”

The game wasn’t as lopsided from a statistical standpoint as the final scoreline may indicate, though. Each side generated ten shots and committed seven fouls, but it was Northwestern’s execution (especially in set piece scenarios) that set them apart from their opponent on this night.

Looking forward, Northwestern has a fairly reasonable avenue to continue to advance in the tournament. The Wildcats are set to face Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville - who took out second-seeded Notre Dame in their first round matchup - in the second round of the tournament.

“We want to win,” Sharples said. “Our focus is on the next game and we’re going to do everything we can, have a lot of effort and have a lot of heart.”