EVANSTON — Wearing their away jerseys on their home field, the Northwestern women's lacrosse team hit their opponents early and hard and maintained a methodical approach on offense and defense, wearing out the Penn State Nittany Lions in the second semifinal of the Big Ten tournament Friday evening.
After jumping out to a 3-0 lead, the Wildcats' lead remained constant throughout, never more than 4 but never less than 2 in the team's 9-6 victory. Following Maryland's victory earlier in the day, this result sets up a Big Ten final matchup between the two most successful teams in women's lacrosse over the last decade.
The win comes after Northwestern ensured itself eligible for the NCAA tournament yesterday with its 20-5 victory over Michigan.
On a beautiful evening in Evanston by the lake, a balanced attack got the job done for Northwestern. Danita Stroup followed up yesterday's two-goal effort with two more in this game, while senior Kaleigh Craig added a hat trick of her own.
"Our team today played with a lot of heart," coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said after the game. "I was really proud of them, the way they played together. I think they really stepped up and made plays when we needed it. They showed they have that inside of them. I'm really proud of them and excited for the opportunity to play on Sunday."
Stroup's two goals were the first of the game for either team, and both came courtesy of feeds from junior Christina Esposito. The first pass came from behind the net to a cutting Stroup, who finished with a one-time shot, while the second feed came in transition to a sprinting Stroup, who was able to finish past the Penn State keeper.
The draw control battle was even, 8-8, but freshman Mallory Weisse's play in goal may have tipped the scales towards Northwestern. A day after setting a career high with 11 saves, Weisse recorded 10 Friday evening, playing well throughout and stopping a number of Penn State possessions cold before the Nittany Lions could gain some momentum back.
In particular, with about 10 minutes to play in the game, Penn State mounted a furious attack, determined to get back into the game. But the freshman net-minder held firm, standing tall in goal and putting a halt to any comeback dreams the Nittany Lions may have harbored. She also defended free position opportunities well.
When asked what has sparked her fine play of late, Weisse had a quick answer.
"The defense," she said. "Giving the low-alley shots helps me see the ball better and also forces the shooters to take a shot faster, not the shot they want to take. Having the defense have my back and make them take those shots has been really helping."
Any time Penn State threatened to get back in this game, Northwestern had an answer.
When Madison Cyr ended Penn State's almost 15-minute goalless drought in the first half to cut her team's deficit to just two, Lasota had an answer about 15 seconds later.
The Canadian won the draw to herself, turned on the jets and then motored pat the Penn State defenders, slowing up slightly near the 8 meter arc before blowing by three defenders and finishing high. Her goal pushed her team's lead back to 3. The Wildcats held the Nittany Lions at arms length for the entire second period.
Looking ahead to the next few days, Craig thinks the tough schedule the team has played this season will enable them to recover quickly and be ready for a Maryland team which has dominated the field during the season.
"[Saturday we] recover, study up, get mentally prepared," Craig said. "It's just another team, so we have to be ready to fight like we've been getting ready for every game."
Northwestern will play Maryland in the Big Ten title game Sunday at noon CT. The game will be played at Martin Stadium at Northwestern and will be televised on the Big Ten Network.