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Examining Lauren Gilbert’s breakout season

The graduate student is making sure opponents know her name this year.

nusports.com

It’s difficult in any context when a team loses its star player. But when that player is the nation’s leading goal scorer, the fallout can be catastrophic.

When Izzy Scane announced she had undergone knee surgery and would miss the entirety of the 2022 season, all eyes turned to Lauren Gilbert to replace the primary scoring role in Northwestern’s offense. It would be an impossible task to replace Scane, who led the NCAA with 6.13 goals per game and accounted for roughly 30% of Northwestern’s goals in 2021. But Gilbert still looked the part of the prime candidate to try to replicate her impact.

As the second option in 2021, Gilbert scored 66 goals, ranking 11th in the country with an average of 4.13 goals per game. In just as many games so far this season, Gilbert has nearly the same scoring output — 63 goals ranking eighth in goals per game — but has seen her role increase so much more as a passer and operator of the Wildcat offense. Gilbert assisted on only nine goals as a senior, but now has become a key facilitator, ranking just behind junior ace Erin Coykendall on the team with 24 assists. This very similarly aligns with Scane’s role last season, who earned 26 assists in addition to leading the team in goals.

Gilbert’s role changes on a game-by-game basis. The graduate student has had games where she is dominant in front of the net, this season scoring eight goals against Rutgers and seven goals against both Notre Dame and Syracuse. However, she also is content to not score at all and instead find her teammates, especially as teams have picked up on her dominance and begun to build their defenses around containing her. In wins against Stony Brook and Michigan, Gilbert did not score at all, but instead had four and five assists, respectively.

With the postseason now just days away, the Wildcats must figure out their top-team woes if they want to make it back to the Final Four. An important key to that is the play of their leading scorer. Here’s how she has made a difference so far, and why her presence on the field is so important to her team’s success.

Gilbert in NU’s Wins

Gilbert’s scoring output is obviously a contributing factor in Northwestern’s wins — in the Wildcats’ 13 victories, the graduate student averages 4.38 goals a game compared to just two in losses. She is very prone to having massive games, such as the aforementioned wins against Rutgers, Notre Dame and Syracuse, but Gilbert also has a laundry list of contests in which she has broken out for five or six goals. In Northwestern’s wins, she has only scored under three goals thrice this season.

Gilbert has shown the ability to take over in the clutch. In a pivotal overtime victory against Syracuse, Northwestern trailed by three with 3:25 to go in regulation. Gilbert tore apart the Orange defense for three goals — including the free position game-winner — in the final minutes of the win. However, her impact this season has gone far beyond last-minute golden goals and scoring output.

Against Stony Brook and Michigan, Gilbert’s presence was felt not from scoring, but from being able to find her open teammates near the net. Gilbert was frequently doubled and keyed in on by the Seawolves, which allowed her to give up the ball to some of her other, equally capable, Wildcats. The facilitating ended up being crucial, as Northwestern won the tight game over a ranked opponent in part by taking advantage of the double team. The same thing happened versus the Wolverines, where Gilbert was able to allow Elle Hansen and Jill Girardi (four goals each) to shine on their own due to the opponents keying in on herself.

Gilbert in NU’s Losses

The ‘Cats only have three losses on the season, so it’s much easier to assess how Gilbert’s performance affected the team than the wins. The goal numbers are what stick out like a sore thumb; Northwestern is 13-0 when it has scored double-digit goals in a game, while holding an 0-3 record when it does not hit that threshold.

A large part of that is due to Gilbert going cold from the field. Against both Boston College and Maryland, both teams capable of shutting down players like her, Gilbert scored just one goal on five and nine shots, respectively. She did manage four goals in the loss to North Carolina, although just one was in the first half and her third didn’t come until the Tar Heels were already up nine in the fourth quarter.

Is this scoring dip because of a role switch as a facilitator though? The stats would say no, as Gilbert logged just one assist over the three games. Instead, it’s more likely a product of the exceptional defenses the Wildcats faced that led to the team’s struggles as a whole. Northwestern’s three losses came at the hands of the No. 2, No. 7 and No. 12 scoring defenses while going against the first, sixth and ninth-ranked goalies in average goals-against. Gilbert shot much worse than her season average — .250 shooting percentage compared to her season-long .525 — largely due to the skill of the three opposing defenses.

The Bottom Line

Gilbert has made her mark in all aspects of the Northwestern offense. This has come not just from her scoring, but also from her passing and even draw controls, where she is second on the team. Truth be told, there isn’t a definitive role that contributes more to wins or losses than hers. And, the Wildcats have found ways to win no matter how Gilbert impacts the team, whether it’s as the go-to scorer or the passer that operates the offense alongside Coykendall and Girardi. Regardless of her role, her impact is unmatched, and getting the ball into her stick will be a huge factor in how the ‘Cats fare this postseason.