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
EIGHT IS GREAT
BEST ROAD WIN
DRAW CONTROLS CRUCIAL
PRESSURING THE GOALIE
HANG ONTO THE BALL