It’s win or go home, but the Final Four is more about just advancing through the playoffs for the only two non-Northeastern teams.
Even after earning the No. 1 seed in the Tournament, the pain from North Carolina’s seven-goal fourth-quarter comeback in last year’s match won’t dissipate for Northwestern. Denver, seeking its first-ever championship and appearing in its first Final Four, seems to have to prove itself over and over again. The Pioneers are the only undefeated team in the tournament, yet were placed at the No. 5 seed.
The Wildcats just narrowly beat Michigan in the second round; it was the only time this season NU scored single-digit goals and the first time since Feb. 19 against Boston College that it trailed in the fourth quarter. Granted, it was the third time this season the two Big Ten opponents squared off, and Northwestern soon recovered with a commanding 16-6 win over Loyola Maryland in the quarterfinals.
Northwestern has had no problem showing why its gathered eight All-American honors, why it has the best offense in the country and why it ended the season with the No. 1 nod. But Denver, understated and overlooked, is a worthy contender whose greatest strength antithesizes Northwestern’s.
The Wildcats may have a lethal supply of shooters that complicates any attempts to effectively halt their attack, but the Pioneers unequivocally house the best defensive unit in the country. They have the most efficient scoring defense, holding opponents to 5.82 goals — the next best was Loyola Maryland with 7.09. Denver also has the second most caused turnovers per game with 12.47, and goalie Emelia Bohi has the fifth-highest save percentage — both of these are the best in the Tournament.
Denver’s strength of schedule has come into contention when solidifying the value of an undefeated season, as it plays in the Big East. Yet, Denver did pick up eight top-25 wins, including a convincing 13-8 victory over Boston College. In the quarterfinals, the Pioneers showcased the palpability of their defensive strength with a 5-4 win over No. 4 North Carolina. Denver caused 15 of 19 Tar Heel turnovers and allowed no goals on only three shots over the entire second half. These four goals are the lowest UNC has scored since May 17, 2002, when it lost 16-2 in the NCAA semifinals to Princeton.
Led by Sam Thacker, Trinity McPherson and Bryn McCaughey, Denver’s zone defense won’t easily be overcome. The Pioneers are also the third-best draw-control team in the country. Given NU’s first-half struggles to win possession in the Big Ten Championship, the draw is another aspect the ‘Cats will need to watch out for.
Northwestern and Denver head to Cary, North Carolina to play on Friday at 2 p.m. CT on ESPNU. The winner will face either No. 3 Boston College or No. 2 Syracuse in the championship on Sunday.