In a classic battle between defense and offense, the top-seeded Cats’ offense reigned supreme over No. 5 Denver’s nation-leading defense.
While it was a slow start for the ‘Cats, ultimately Northwestern flipped the script and held the Pioneers in their first-ever Championship Weekend appearance to only two second-half goals.
Denver, known for its swarming zone defense, gave up double-digit goals for the first time this season. While the ‘Cats were rattled early, they found their groove and were able to play more physically in their own defense as a response.
“I was just really proud of the way that we were able to execute, still have strong offense, even though their defense is so stingy,” Head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said.
Backed by Tewaaraton Finalist Izzy Scane’s six goals and Hailey Rhatigan’s four, Northwestern came back from an early 4-2 deficit to explode for a combined nine goals in the third and fourth quarters.
Molly Laliberty had eight saves and allowed only five goals for a .615 save percentage, with Samantha White collecting four crucial ground balls.
Scane also notched three huge caused turnovers against the top-ranked defense, which averages nearly 13 caused turnovers per game.
“I think we knew that Denver’s defense was going to come out really aggressive,” Scane said. “It kind of took us a second to kind of punch back with that. And our plan going in was to be just as aggressive going at them as they came at us, and our defense started making some really big stops.”
Collectively, Northwestern managed to cause 13 of Denver’s 21 turnovers. The draw control battle came out to a tie at 12-even, with Denver grabbing five in the first quarter to Northwestern’s two — allowing the Pios to capitalize on possession early in the game.
But as we know with this offense, when it rains it pours.
A four-goal run brought the ‘Cats into the locker room with a 6-4 lead. While Denver was able to come out in the second half and make it a one-goal game from Kayla Derose, Northwestern’s scorching-hot offense went on a nine-goal run to eventually widen the score to a ten-goal lead.
“Our offense did a great job of kind of moving the ball and creating opportunities for each other and just focusing on our offense as much their defense,” Scane said. “Which is I think, why we were able to be successful.”
For the first time in ten seasons — eleven years, barring 2020’s cancellation — Northwestern will advance to the NCAA Championship. The Wildcats will face the winner of two ACC foes in Boston College or Syracuse on Sunday at 11 a.m. CT.