45 minutes into Sunday’s second round of the NCAA Tournament, you could hear a pin drop inside Martin Stadium. For the first time in nearly three months, Northwestern was down heading into the final quarter. The tension in the air was palpable, as no one had seen a performance like this from the ‘Cats. True moments of fear occurred — there was no way a team this good could lose. Right? As chants of “go blue” rung out from visiting fans, with NU losing 5-4 to Michigan, the Wildcats had the realization that beating a team three times in a single season was an extremely difficult task.
It wasn’t until 12 minutes remained in the game that Hailey Rhatigan found the back of the net to put the ‘Cats up for good. Still, the Wolverines refused to go down easily. Julia Schwabe’s goal with less than five minutes left cut Northwestern’s lead to one. For the next four minutes, it felt like the Lakefill crowd held its breath with every Michigan possession. When the clock finally struck zero, the sigh of relief from the crowd, coaches and players was audible.
For No. 1 Northwestern, Sunday’s game should serve as a wake-up call. Although they are the best team in the nation, loaded with talent, the ‘Cats showed that there is a way for them to be beaten.
In the last few weeks, NU has struggled out of the gate. Despite being the top team in the country, the ‘Cats have been unable to pull away in the first half. Sunday’s game was no different. In the second quarter of the contest, Northwestern scored one goal over the period, including being held scoreless for the final eight minutes of the frame. NU’s failure to score allowed the Wolverines to take the lead into the locker room — the first time the ‘Cats had trailed at the half since February 19. It has been noted that Northwestern has been a second-half team all season; however, against better squads, poor first halves will eventually bite the Wildcats. If a team takes advantage and jumps out to a sizable lead, NU will have a hard time catching up — ending what has the makings to be a magical season.
The ‘Cats’ offensive woes were not just a first-half issue on Sunday, as the Lake Show could not find its groove all day. It was clear that in the third matchup between the two Big Ten squads, the Wolverines figured out how to defend the highest-powered offense in the nation. Michigan focused all of its attention on stopping Izzy Scane, one of the top goal scorers in college lacrosse, usually deploying double- or triple-teams to guard No. 27 — and it worked. Scane was held at bay all day, only scoring once on 10 shots — her lowest shooting percentage since the season opener.
The other members of NU’s attack were not much better. Maddy Taylor did not find the back of the goal once in the contest, even though she whipped seven shots. In fact, only two of her attempts were on target. It was the first time the first-year was held scoreless since March 10 against Stony Brook. It took Erin Coykendall 45 minutes to score her second goal after putting NU on the board toward the beginning of the match. Rhatigan, who normally averages 3.5 goals a game, waited two quarters before she secured her second goal of the contest.
The offense, as a whole, looked stagnant. There was not a lot of movement and cutting to create scoring opportunities; instead, NU let its best players try to win it on their own. As the competition gets better, plus more film becomes available, opponents are going to focus all their resources on stopping the ‘Cats’ lead scorers. If Scane has two or three defenders on her, someone must be unguarded; that’ll be who NU has to rely on.
The question for head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller and this team is simple — who is going to step up and make the big shot? On Sunday, Carleigh Mahoney’s first goal of the season was very timely, putting NU’s lead out of reach. Now, as the Wildcats prepare for their quarterfinal game, they’ll need to get back to playing team offense and moving the ball efficiently.
While the offense struggled to find a rhythm, the ‘Cats also kept shooting themselves in the foot. It was a physical game undoubtedly, but the amount of penalties Northwestern committed is not sustainable against better competition. The Wildcats had six cards handed to them: five yellow and one green. On half of those penalties, the Wolverines took advantage of the woman-up situation — scoring three goals. Playing down is not good for any team, let alone against other national championship contenders.
While playing aggressively is great, the sheer amount of penalties will hurt NU at some point. The ‘Cats, who have the talent to suffocate a team for a full sixty minutes, need to understand that any breathing room they give an opponent is a gift. Whether it is not trying to check as often, or slashing to knock the ball out of the stick, NU needs to keep all 11 players on the field at all times to compete for a national championship.
It is title or bust for the Wildcats, who have not advanced to the championship game since 2012, yet their recent play has been a cause for concern. No, the panic button should not be pushed, but the ‘Cats should be on high alert. Northwestern is going to get every team’s best shot, so it has to play at its peak for the three remaining games. If Sunday’s game showed anything, it was that if NU does not play to its potential, it is — in fact — mortal.