Northwestern is moving on to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament thanks to its draw control dominance, stout defense and quick starts.
The Wildcats demolished Central Michigan in the first round, 22-7. NU fell into a quick 2-1 deficit, but by the end of the first period, the Cats were up 8-3 and continued to pull away from there.
After falling flat in the Big Ten Tournament with a 13-5 loss to Rutgers in the first round, NU came into the game eager to prove itself.
“When you get the information that you aren’t ready for that moment, you have to assess yourself and figure out ways that you’re going to be stronger physically and mentally,” coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said.
Before the game, Amonte Hiller said the Chippewas presented many of the same challenges as Rutgers. She praised both squads as scrappy, well-coached and athletic teams.
NU took advantage of that fighting spirit, goading Central Michigan into giving the Cats 11 free position attempts, and NU scored on eight.
“To get free position shots, you have to work the ball,” graduate attacker Lauren Gilbert said. “You have to put the defense in positions where they’re sliding, they’re getting into shooting space or you’re dodging hard at them, and they have to follow you.”
NU jumped out to a 5-0 lead in the first quarter against Michigan, with senior goaltender Madison Doucette making three crucial saves and the defense forcing turnovers to maintain possession.
But the story of the game was graduate midfielders Jill Girardi and Brennan Dwyer’s dominance at the draw circle. The Cats won 23 draw controls compared to the Wolverines’ six wins, including winning all nine draw controls in the third quarter.
“Northwestern on the draw was sensational,” Michigan coach Hannah Nielsen said. “When we had the ball, we could score goals pretty easily, but unfortunately, when you’re not getting it from the middle, it makes it really, really difficult.”
Even with Girardi and Dwyer’s success at the draw, the Wolverines mounted a strong comeback in the final two quarters. Michigan put together a 3-1 run to open the third quarter and pulled within one of NU, but the Cats strung three goals together to rebuild their lead.
But fans were on their toes until the very end, as the Wolverines pulled within two goals with six minutes to play, and then regained possession in the final moments after a costly Cats turnover and foul. Doucette made the free position save and NU held on to win, with sophomore forward Erin Coykendall scoring with just a second to go to ice the game.
“(Doucette) set the tone with the ride,” Amonte Hiller said. “She was active and aggressive and relentless, and that transformed into her play in the cage as well. She was able to make the saves, and she made a lot of timely saves too, which is a sign of greatness. That’s a huge moment for Madison, for her to build off of that.”
After Friday’s game against Central Michigan, Gilbert said the Cats’ focus after losing in the Big Ten Tournament was to play to win and stay aggressive, and not just “play to not lose.”
Against Michigan, the Cats faced a true challenge, like in the Big Ten Tournament, and this time, they stayed aggressive and kept fighting back, even after jumping out to a big early lead.
NU will need to do that again against Syracuse in the quarterfinal Thursday, a team it beat 16-15 in overtime earlier in the season, and lost to in the Final Four last year.
“Last year, we didn’t show up as our best,” senior midfielder Elle Hansen said. “We’re really excited to get back there and match up against them.”
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