March 13, 2016
NOTRE DAME, Ind. -
By Leigh Torbin
Eight days ago, No. 6 Notre Dame held a 6-3 halftime lead at then-No. 11 Louisville but let it slip away in a 10-9 double overtime loss to the Cardinals - the lone defeat this year for the Irish in nine games.
On Sunday, Notre Dame led undefeated No. 7 Princeton 6-3 late in the first half and the Tigers scored twice to make it a 6-5 game. This time, the Irish showed their mettle and responded by scoring each of the next six goals en route to a 16-11 victory at Arlotta Stadium.
While 2015 Tewaaraton Award finalist Barbara Sullivan helped hold the Tigers in check at the defensive end of the field, matching a school record which she already shared by causing seven turnovers in the game, the Irish offense got a hat trick and two assists from Cortney Fortunato and four goals from Rachel Sexton to ensure victory.
"I think we learned a lot from that loss," said Sullivan, a three-year tenured captain of the Irish. "Sometimes, as much as we don't want to lose, you can learn a lot from that. I think we took that and went into Virginia Tech and Liberty [both dominating wins] and we displayed our true talents. That confidence came over to today."
"The reality is we didn't really belabor it at all," Irish head coach Christine Halfpenny said of the Louisville loss and her team's quick mental recovery. "We were able to look at it and say we played a really great team in Louisville. Louisville made the final play of the game (in the second overtime) and we made adjustments and turned around quickly to getting back to what we do.
"Quite honestly, we're grateful for the Louisville game - not necessarily the loss - because it got our offense moving again. It got us moving (with and without the ball) against a sagged pressure defense that continued to switch off of our players. We recognized that we don't have to adjust what we're doing. Sometimes, we just need to be disciplined to keep doing what we are doing."
Possessing several scoring threats, the Irish are at their best when circulating the ball among them. Notre Dame ranks second in the nation in assists per game. Against the Cardinals, the Irish were credited with just three assists on their nine goals (33.3%). Today, the ratio was back up to 50% at eight of 16 and the Irish found themselves back in the win column.
Any questions of how the Irish would flow on offense were answered quickly. After being held scoreless for 9:21, the team scored three goals over the ensuing 1:02, all with Sexton scoring off of passes from Nikki Ortega, to take a 3-2 lead.
"Nikki and I spent a lot of time practicing that during the week," Sexton said of her connection with the talented freshman attacker who started regularly for the United States this past summer at the Under-19 World Championships. "It's natural. It's something that we've been building throughout the season. She's a freshman so we're just getting used to playing with each other."
After Heidi Annaheim scored on a free position shot with 10:49 to go until intermission, the Irish held the familiar 6-3 advantage like a week prior. Princeton's Colby Chanenchuk combined with Olivia Hompe for a Tiger goal 7:36 before halftime. Ellie McNulty controlled the ensuing draw, rushed up field and scored just 14 seconds later, quickly making it just a one-goal game at 6-5.
Halfpenny called timeout and a refocused Irish team emerged from the huddle. McManus and Ortega caused Princeton turnovers as the settled Irish and Tigers played to a scoreless stalemate for about six minutes. Notre Dame extended its lead to 7-5 when Stephanie Toy rolled off of her defender for an unassisted goal with 1:46 remaining until halftime. Just 14.6 seconds before the break, Kiera McMullan passed up a free position shot to set up Grace Muller for a goal making it 8-5 and the Irish never looked back.
Notre Dame scored six goals in succession starting with Toy's tally and when Hompe snapped the run, Notre Dame responded instantly lest the Tigers try a comeback. Fortunato, the nation's leading scorer with both 50 points and 5.56 points per game, scored twice in a 45 second span midway through the half to put the Irish on top by eight goals, 14-6.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame helped keep Princeton's offense at bay. Freshman goalkeeper Samantha Giacolone made six second half saves as the Irish began the half on a 8-3 run which wrested complete control of the game.
For the tall and rangy Sullivan, her prowess causing turnovers (Sullivan leads the ACC and ranks second nationally causing 3.33 per game) stems from trust in those around her as much as her own abilities. In addition to the graduate student Sullivan, the team's three top defenders are all seniors in Brie Custis, Stephanie Peragallo and Katherine McManus. Combined with a veteran defensive midfield and Giacolone, who is putting up big save numbers, Sullivan can truly unleash her ball-hawking skills in 2016.
"It's a credit to our defensive unit," Sullivan said of her second seven-caused turnover game of 2016, both coming against top 15 teams. "They let me take those risks that I wouldn't be able to take if I didn't know every single defender behind me was going to have my back. Having that confidence and belief in what's behind me leads me to be able to go for those checks."
"It's like a broken record - Barbara does it again," Halfpenny said. "We're good with that. We'll keep it being a broken record. She plays with tenacity.
"You're lucky if you get one defender like Barbara in all of your time coaching. I think that she is in the conversation of one of the greatest of all-time defenders. She's aggressive. She may get out of position but somehow she gets back in position. Talk about a kid who makes plays when you need to make plays. Barbara Sullivan is there and that is a big piece of our aggressive defense. She can make those plays when she needs to because she can trust her teammates behind her."
The road does not get easier for the Irish. No. 8 Virginia comes to Arlotta Stadium on Saturday, likely with a hunger to avenge two losses to Notre Dame last spring on its home field in Charlottesville where the Irish claimed victories both during the regular season and the ACC Championship. The following Saturday brings a visit by No. 3 Syracuse, a team Notre Dame beat in overtime last spring in the Carrier Dome.
There is no stopping the unrelenting pace of perhaps the nation's toughest schedule. Thankfully, there has been few things to stop the 8-1 Irish in 2016, a squad which ranks second nationally with a plus-10.22 goals per game scoring margin. Lessons learned on the field in Louisville, and in the 24 hours following the narrow defeat, served the Irish well on Sunday against the Tigers. They will require repetition soon enough.
Leigh Torbin, athletics communications assistant director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 2013 and coordinates all media efforts for the Notre Dame women's lacrosse team while serving as the football publicity team's top lieutenant. A native of Framingham, Massachusetts, Torbin graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1998 with a bachelor's degree in sports management. He has previously worked full-time on the athletic communications staffs at Vanderbilt, Florida, Connecticut and UCF.