March 6, 2014
LAKE BARRINGTON, Ill. - Of course she kept the ball.
Over a half hour after the contest ended, Margaret Smith, two-year captain of the Notre Dame women's lacrosse team, was still toting around the game ball from the end of Wednesday night's 9-8 win over No. 4 Northwestern like a Faberge egg. Sitting gleefully on the benches outside of the Irish locker room, talking to her teammates and sharing smiles, the yellow ball was alternately in her hands and wrapped up in her shirt, constantly nestled like the lifetime keepsake that the Irish win it provided represented.
Smith and her teammates had yet to defeat Northwestern in their careers at Notre Dame. Several classes worth of Smith's predecessors can say the same thing as the Wildcats had reeled off 14 straight wins over the Irish coming into the game since a 2003 Notre Dame win.
None of that mattered on Wednesday night. A Notre Dame team that led for all but 11 seconds of the first half, and much of the second half too, suddenly found itself down 8-6 with just under seven minutes to play in the game. The experience and grit of players like Smith fused with the youthful vigor of players like freshman Cortney Fortunato and, as the coaching staff had hoped, formed a fast, aggressive and passionate team that overcame its late deficit to knock off the Wildcats inside the Lake Barrington Field House.
The symbiotic relationship of those components, necessary for Notre Dame's team success, was crucial in last night's victory.
"Our leaders and older players stepped up in this game," Fortunato said. "There was not a second of doubt because of their leadership. The older girls were so confident and strong. Their communication was awesome. They gave us young kids a confidence boost and there wasn't doubt for a second even when things weren't going our way for a couple plays."
Securing the victory took plays all over the field. Goalkeeper Allie Murray not only made some big saves down the stretch but also collected several ground balls and caused a turnover that led to the goal Notre Dame scored to tie the game at 5-5. Sophomore Brie Custis caused a turnover in front of Notre Dame's net that would lead eventually to an Irish goal 100 yards away that made it an 8-7 game with 2:55 to play. Senior captain Molly Shawhan's lone draw control of the game was converted 20 seconds later into Fortunato's game-tying goal with 2:21 left in regulation. Shawhan also scooped up a critical ground ball with 24 seconds left, on a turnover that she created, to help the Irish kill the clock not long after Murray stopped a free position attempt.
In those final three minutes of the game, three different Notre Dame players scored goals, a sophomore in Rachel Sexton, a freshman in Fortunato and a senior in Lauren Sullivan with a freshman, Casey Pearsall, setting up that game-winning strike. It took a full team effort over a full 120 yards to secure the come-from-behind upset of Northwestern.
"To see it all come together in the final three minutes is exciting," Irish head coach Christine Halfpenny said. "It shows that we're able to battle adversity.
"Our team is a strong unit on defense. They come together so nicely. The entire team came to play. We had little plays that became big plays, such as the draw control that went to Molly Shawhan. The girls were disciplined and played with a lot of heart. They put the fight in Fighting Irish."
With the win the Irish improve to 4-2 on the year as Notre Dame aims for its sixth NCAA tournament berth in the past seven years. It was the squad's second ranked win this spring, joining a victory over then-No. 12 Stony Brook on Feb. 22. If you enjoy statistical minutia, the victory over Northwestern and the extent to which Notre Dame shut down and outplayed the Wildcats in a home game was truly historic. Some notes:
BEATING THE WILDCATS AT HOME
Not many teams come away from Chicagoland with a win.
The Irish win snapped a 15-game home winning streak for Northwestern.
Prior to losing to Notre Dame last night, Northwestern had won 37 of its last 38 home games and stood at 101-3 at home since 2004.
EIGHT IS GREAT
How significant of an accomplishment was it for the Fighting Irish defense to hold Northwestern to eight goals?
It was the first time the Wildcats had been held to a single digit scoring total this year, against a schedule that has already included games against No. 8 Virginia and No. 5 Duke.
It was just the fourth time that a team held Northwestern to eight goals or fewer in a home game since 2006.
In the 17 meetings all-time between Northwestern and Notre Dame, it was the lowest output for the Wildcats since the Fighting Irish posted an 11-3 win on April 21, 2002 in the first-ever meeting between the teams.
BEST ROAD WIN
Beating No. 4 Northwestern marked the highest ranked road win in Notre Dame women's lacrosse history.
Previously, the Fighting Irish have beaten a team ranked No. 7 on the road on three occasions, most recently a 10-8 win at Georgetown on April 12, 2008. The Irish also had a win earlier in 2008 at No. 7 Duke and one in 2001 at No. 7 Yale.
The Irish benchmark for the highest ranked win overall remains an 11-9 win over No. 2 Duke on March 10, 2004 in Orlando.
DRAW CONTROLS CRUCIAL
Although Northwestern held an 11-8 edge in draw controls, it was a win in several ways for the Irish.
Notre Dame claimed some of the game's most important draws, including the opening draw of the game, which led to a goal at the 11-second mark, and the two draws which immediately led to goals that both tied the game at 8-8 and won it for Notre Dame at 9-8.
The Wildcats entered the game fourth in the nation with 18.00 draw controls per game and held a 54-26 advantage on the year over its foes. Notre Dame came the closest yet to matching them.
Alyssa Leonard, who entered the game second nationally with 10.67 draw controls per game, had just four against an aggressive Irish midfield after having 10 against Virginia, 13 against Duke, and nine against Marquette thus far in 2014.
PRESSURING THE GOALIE
As a part of holding a territorial edge in the contest, Notre Dame claimed a 33-21 advantage in shots attempted Wednesday night. Few teams are able to attack Northwestern's goal to that extent.
The 12-shot advantage that the Irish enjoyed was the largest margin against Northwestern in a home game since Ohio State outshot the Wildcats by 13 on March 23, 2003.
The 33 shots fired by the Irish were the most times a team has taken aim at the Wildcat net in a home game since No. 2 Maryland ripped off 35 shots on April 16, 2007.
Reflecting the team's great depth, Notre Dame's nine goals came from seven different players. Only Cortney Fortunato (three) scored more than once in the win. The team's 12 points were distributed amongst nine different players.
HANG ONTO THE BALL
In its loss against No. 1 North Carolina on Feb. 27, the team's 19 turnovers were a troubling contributor and one stressed by the coaching staff afterward. The results of that attention were on display Wednesday night. Facing another highly-ranked foe on the road, the Irish nearly cut that sum in half, turning the ball over just 10 times. The Irish did this against a team whose opponents had committed an average of 18 turnovers per game so far in 2014.