It seemed inevitable that Northwestern would find itself in a position to win it all. Against Duke in the Final Four, that was proven true.
What a 2-1 victory and tied game going into the fourth quarter doesn’t display is just how unforgiving the Wildcat offense is, and how concrete the defense is. Northwestern totaled 20 shots, while limiting Duke to four — just a single shot in each frame.
“I talk about the offense a lot, but our defense has been so good this year,” head coach Tracey Fuchs said. “Defense starts with the forwards, and we thrive on our ability to put pressure on their backs and their midfield. It’s definitely a team effort.”
That versatility of being able to constantly push the ball in front of the goal and pressure the Blue Devils kept Duke from ever being able to really dominate possession.
Within the first two minutes, graduate student and captain Peyton Halsey fired two shots. Albeit no goal, she quickly set the tone of a game that NU would play with urgency.
Duke may have gotten the first corner of the contest, but that was also its only one. With a little over two minutes left in the first quarter, Northwestern gathered two penalty corners and four goals, establishing that it would be unparalleled in opportunities. The 10 corners speak to that.
Both of these first-quarter takeaways that have marked NU’s play all season materialized in just minutes of the second frame, as first-year Ilse Tromp scored off a penalty corner inserted by graduate student Alia Marshall and stopped by Lauren Hunter.
Headed into halftime, it was clear this game was Northwestern’s to lose. It was 1-0, but NU had recorded seven corners and two consecutive quarters with six shots each .
The Blue Devils responded with a goal early on out of the break, but the ‘Cats never lost momentum. The score was even, but the game was all purple.
“Our team this year has a mentality of, there’s gonna be really good opportunities either way,” said Marshall, who is playing in her fifth NCAA Tournament. “We just know to get back, our teammates are gonna pull us together.”
It took three minutes into the fourth quarter to demonstrate that team culture.
After a lengthy review of a Northwestern foot, requested by Duke, first-year Olivia Bent-Cole intercepted a pass and sprinted downfield to assist junior Regan Cornelius, who put the ball in the back of the goal
The game-winner, along with Tromp’s goal, spotlights another important feature of this team: the Wildcats aren’t just versatile in terms of offensive and defensive, but also in their arsenal of players.
The two first-years were — and have been — pivotal in scoring. Marshall drew seven penalty corners. Aside from both being all over the field, Halsey and senior Lauren Wadas garnered four and eight shots, respectively.
The ‘Cats have an offense that will never cease to get shots off, and which has the best scoring margin in the country. On top of that, they have one of the best defenses in the country, headlined by arguably the sport’s best goalie in Annabel Skubisz. Not to mention, Northwestern is marked by two first-year phenoms who have made their mark on this offense, in addition to postseason-experienced players in Marshall, Wadas, Halsey and Skubisz, among others.
Northwestern will play North Carolina for the national title on Sunday. Last year’s championship loss to the Tar Heels will certainly be a topic of discussion, especially as North Carolina gained the No. 1 seed after NU was ranked in that spot for four straight weeks.
But Northwestern isn’t scared. Headed into its third consecutive championship appearance, Fuchs’ team is no longer the inexperienced postseason squad that it was a few years ago. It’s not in the same position that it was in 2021, making it to the final game for the first time ever. North Carolina field hockey is a dynasty, but Northwestern is building one.
All the ‘Cats want is to play on Sunday.
“Not a lot of people get to play in the national championship, let alone three in a row,” Marshall said. “We’re just excited to get to that stage again.”