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Heading into NCAA Tournament, Northwestern is as battle-tested and deep as anyone

That’s a recipe for a national title.

Northwestern Athletics

When Maryland’s Hannah Leubecker snuck a third unanswered goal past Molly Laliberty to put the Terrapins up 3-2 with 14 minutes left in the second quarter of the Big Ten Championship, those who had watched Northwestern lacrosse win 16 consecutive games might have sensed an unfamiliar feeling — one rooted in vulnerability.

It could have been because it was the first time the Wildcats had trailed since the first quarter of their win against Albany nearly a month ago. Maybe it was because NU, the top offense in the country, had gone 12 minutes without scoring. And in the process, UMD had shut down Tewaaraton Award nominee Hailey Rhatigan two weeks after she erupted for four goals in Evanston. Maybe that vulnerability was a combination of all of those things.

One thing was for certain at that moment, though. The Lakeshow wasn’t fearing a fight. Considering it had already won eight straight games against top-20 opponents this season, that made sense.

The ‘Cats didn’t just deal with that adversity; they loved it. You could see it on Dylan Amonte’s face as she slammed down her stick following her second goal of the game, which evened the score at four after Maryland star Libby May found the net for the second time.

It wasn’t really a response as much as it was an exclamation. It was a mic drop that asserted Northwestern didn’t have to answer to any team — isn’t that what being the best squad in the nation is all about? Instead, NU was the team issuing a statement and a challenge. One that said, “Thanks for making us prove that we’re the best. Now, try and show us that we’re not.”

It was only fitting that the challenge Northwestern was offering Maryland mirrored the goals it set for itself for the evening.

“We just have to compete hard, be a tough team, we have to fight hard for possessions of the ball,” head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said before the game. “Keep it simple, play together and have a lot of fun.”

Her team responded to a slow offensive start — a situation it had faced against the same opponent exactly two weeks earlier — by doing just that. After Izzy Scane scored the second of her four goals and tied the game at five, the ‘Cats won 10 of the next 11 draw controls. Slowly but surely, they worked for higher-quality looks that found the back of the net and stifled the Terps on the other end thanks to excellent defense in front of Molly Laliberty.

It would be remiss to say that winning in different ways is what makes this Northwestern team special; there are multiple teams that can do just that. But to defeat one of the best defenses in the country at its own game, right after it had made all the necessary adjustments to stop Rhatigan from beating them as she did two weeks earlier, is special. It speaks to the incredible attacking depth Amonte Hiller has at her disposal.

Five Northwestern attackers put up multiple goals against Maryland. Five. During offensive slumps, teams with a historically-gifted scorer on their side in any sport typically respond by force-feeding that star to revamp the team. Yet, even though Scane put up four goals and an assist, it wasn’t clear until looking at the stat sheet that she was Option One.

Instead, NU had options 1A, 1B, 1C, 1D and 1E in Scane, Rhatigan, Amonte, Erin Coykendall and Maddy Taylor, so Maryland could never collapse on one player. Good teams have two top options. Great teams might have three. Northwestern had five, and one could call this an off-night.

It’s why the Wildcats are going to enter the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed and the team to beat. Even for a program as storied as Northwestern, it is rare to build a team this deep and talented. It’s even more unique for a team to respond to challenges from elite opponents this swiftly and consistently, to the point where it’s difficult to pinpoint an obvious weakness.

Those are all the makings of a potential national champion, and Northwestern hasn’t given a reason in about three months why it shouldn’t be the last team standing. With another well-rounded, persevering victory, the ‘Cats demonstrated that their opponent can’t just exploit their early mistakes to win; it has to simply have more stars who can outplay Lake Michigan’s five-headed monster for 60 minutes. That’s tougher than taking down a mythical lake monster, and that sends one message to the rest of the nation.

Catch them if you can. Mic drop.