On a beautiful Friday evening in Evanston, the Northwestern women's lacrosse team missed a prime chance to get its season back on track, dropping a hard fought game to undefeated USC to drop a game below .500. The Wildcats are now firmly in danger of missing the NCAA tournament.
In what was a rough and tumble game on both sides, coach Kelly Amonte Hiller and the Wildcats have to be disappointed with the way this one turned out: 14-11, in favor of the visitors. The teams played a closer game than the scoreboard indicated, but from the start, this was USC's game to lose. Outside of a stretch of dominant play from the Wildcats to start the second half and a desperate surge late to cut the final margin, it was all Trojans in Evanston.
While the first half was a tense, physical affair, the second was much more free-flowing and open--although just as physical. The teams combined for 51 fouls and 30 turnovers on the evening.
The end of the low-scoring first half was a microcosm for the entire game: Northwestern went down early, but clawed its way back through strong play before USC slammed the door.
In the first half, it was 3-3 with under two minutes to go when Cynthia Del Core found herself with the ball and acres of space near Mallory Weisse's goal. She converted and so did Kylie Drexel about a minute later to send the Wildcats went into the break down two after a deflating couple of minutes for the home team.
In the second half, Northwestern found itself down 8-4 after 10 minutes but found another gear. Three minutes and three goals later, the deficit for the Wildcats was a lone score. With all the momentum, the home crowd roaring and Shelby Fredericks dominating in the draw control circle, it looked like this game would come down to the wire.
The visitors had other ideas, however. 10 minutes of play later, USC had Northwestern doubled up, 14-7, with under eight minutes left as goals number 12, 13 and 14 came courtesy of senior Amanda Johansen.
Though Northwestern would not quit, eventually closing the deficit to three at 14-11, it was too little, too late and USC was able to run the clock out to secure the victory.
"We just didn't finish opportunities," Amonte Hiller said. "We had a lot of opportunities in the first half--we hit a bunch of pipes. We just weren't able to finish our opportunities and we let them get ahead and they were able to finish their opportunities."
The big question now is will the Wildcats finish the season .500 or better?
To finish below .500 would result in the unthinkable: missing the end-of-season NCAA championship, the same tournament Northwestern won five years in a row in its heyday.
The team takes on Rutgers at home on Sunday in what figures to be its easiest game left on the schedule. After Rutgers, big matchups loom with Penn State and Ohio State, both of which are on the road. The Nittany Lions and Buckeyes are currently sit tied for second in the Big Ten at 4-1.
"We have to take every game one game at a time and we have to do everything we can to win every game because we have to put ourselves in a good position," Amonte Hiller said. "We're really not in a good position right now."
If the team misses the NCAA tournament, each player is going to be left wondering what could have been different to prevent such an unthinkable outcome. Nights like this will surely loom large in the Wildcats' heads.
Senior Spring Sanders had an outstanding game individually, scoring twice when things were looking dire--her first goals of the season--in big moments on coast-to-coast plays. She also made a number of heads-up defensive plays as she stripped her opponent of the ball several times in critical moments. Perhaps an overlooked aspect of her play is during the draw controls, when the ball shoots skyward and Sanders skies as well, trying to get a stick on it.
"She just stepped up," Amonte Hiller said. "She's an emotional kid, she stepped up big and she was able to get us some momentum. She plays with a lot of heart."