Two wins are all that stand between Northwestern and a national title. Two wins until Northwestern can deliver the program’s first championship in 11 years and memorialize a season of having the best offense in the nation.
The Wildcats will play Denver on Friday in the Final Four. Should it advance, Northwestern will face the winner of Boston College and Syracuse. The Eagles and the Orange are well-known opponents, but the Pioneers, the only undefeated team in the NCAA Tournament coming out of the Big East, last contested the ‘Cats in 2021 — before then, it was 2009.
The Final Four
The Final Four will come down to which team can embrace its strength the best.
For Northwestern, utilizing a rotation of shooters and a who’s-up-next mindset will be vital in taking down the country’s best defense. In Tewaaraton Finalists Izzy Scane and Erin Coykendall, the ‘Cats have the players with the most and seventh-most points in the country, respectively. Scane’s 89 goals lead the team with Hailey Rhatigan and Coykendall, who both have over 50, behind her. Madison Taylor and Dylan Amonte, who have 47 and 30 goals, respectively, are also worthy options.
In the postseason, the ‘Cats have adjusted to a slower working attack to combat teams face-guarding Scane or Rhatigan, but it will be interesting to see how the two teams approach each other as the Pios are known for their zone defense.
With the Pioneers’ ability to halt runs and instigate turnovers, Northwestern will need to play smart. For reference, Denver held UNC to a shocking four goals in the quarterfinals and caused 15 turnovers. The Wildcats need to capitalize on every possession, which means taking the time to find the open shooter. NU may not be able to get as many shots on goal as it usually does, but with its offensive weapons, it doesn’t need plenty of opportunities. The ‘Cats are No. 1 for a reason, and it’s time to employ every corner of their exceptionally deep roster.
Strategy for (hopefully) both games
Offense. Offense. Offense. If you haven’t figured it out by now, Northwestern is pretty good at scoring goals and putting up lopsided scores.
Both regular season games against Syracuse and BC were decided by one goal. A similar battle could be in store if NU plays either team, and given the attacking threats on both teams, Scane, Coykendall and Rhatigan need to be ready to put on a clinic. Of course, that same attitude is necessary for Denver, and Northwestern’s only priority is making each possession count on Friday.
Aside from scoring, the Wildcats need to maintain the draw and cut down on yellow cards. Possession is everything. Against a brick-wall defense, opportunities can’t be wasted. Against Syracuse or BC, a team will fall behind if it doesn’t finish drives. In close games, like the Final Four and Championship are expected to be, the difference may very well be one draw or one turnover.
The Wildcats have shown strength on the draw with Samantha Smith, Samantha White, Taylor and Serafina DeMunno all posing threats on the circle. But, as of late, NU has been gathering a few penalties. It had four yellow cards in each of its last two games against Loyola Maryland and Michigan. Northwestern should keep up its aggressive defense and rides but needs to limit woman-up situations against teams as lethal and proven as these three.
The Wildcats have made it this far, and “it” is exactly where they should be. This isn’t about proving capability; Northwestern was built to be competing for a title up until the end, and the ‘Cats deserve it as much as any of these three dominant programs.