April 18, 2015
NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Northwestern's Jess Carroll sprinted down the field with the ball as the Wildcats tried to make a 10-9 lead hold up in Thursday's women's lacrosse showdown against the University of Notre Dame.
Carroll charged into the wing area, and that's where Notre Dame's Heidi Annaheim made a stand to try and give the Fighting Irish one last shot.
Carroll hammered the petite Annaheim, who hit the turf hard. Even though an official was starting to signal a foul, Annaheim was trying to get to her feet and continue to fight for the ball.
"You want to talk about taking one for the team," Notre Dame head coach Christine Halfpenny said. "Our tiny little No. 14 (Annaheim) literally just got punched in the face, I think, and looked like, `I've got to get this ball.' "We're like, `Go down. You're seeing stars. Please go down.' But that's the character we're talking about. This 2015 team, there's something about these kids."
Notre Dame fired off a last shot in the final 10 seconds, but No. 7 Northwestern escaped with a 10-9 victory against the No. 10 Irish.
While Halfpenny targeted areas of concern after the loss, she loved the effort and determination she saw from the Irish, traits that will make Notre Dame a fierce draw in the Atlantic Coast Conference or NCAA championships.
"They are special," Halfpenny said of the Irish. "It wasn't our best outing. You have to credit Northwestern for playing just as hard as we did and having one more goal than we had, but the reality for us is the character and the determination of these kids. These guys have incredible will, and I couldn't be prouder of them. They'll take this one, they'll stick it in their back pocket and they will absolutely allow this to refuel them."
Halfpenny said Notre Dame's 20 turnovers and nine-for-27 shooting were uncharacteristic of a team that had forged a hot streak of six victories in its previous seven matches. The Wildcats' draw-control game provided Northwestern with a critical edge, and Halfpenny noted that the none-for-four showing by the Irish from the free-position line was also a game-changer. And there were two shots rifled toward the goal by the Irish that banged off the pipes.
"I was excited we were able to compete," Halfpenny said. "On a day where, really, we are not our best, we still gave maximum effort. We gave ourselves chances all the way to the final 10 seconds, and we just didn't convert. That was tough. It was tough not to convert, having three opportunities to actually push this game into potential overtime or a buzzer-beater."
Notre Dame rallied from deficits of 4-1 and 5-2 and pulled ahead 9-8 at the 10:33 mark of the second half.
Gargan said rallying from the three-goal deficit was huge for the Irish.
"I think if you looked at this team six weeks ago, we would not have dug out of that hole," Gargan said. "That shows our hard work and how we've shifted our belief. We believe in our talent and that we can use it to execute our game plan and perform at the highest level, no matter who we're playing. I think that's most important. We're not afraid of their ranking."
Another key development as the Irish hone in on tournament success was maintaining their composure to get the comeback started.
"We just didn't get frustrated," Gargan said. "We kept doing what we knew we were capable of doing, and we were able to change away from things that weren't working. That shows huge growth for us as a team."
Notre Dame wraps up the regular season Sunday against Louisville, and then it's ACC and NCAA Championships action. It's likely the Irish will face Northwestern in the NCAA Championships.
"The one thing we just talked about in the locker room was that nothing they did was our downfall," Gargan said of the loss to the Wildcats. "There were a lot of turnovers in the first half, so not keeping control of the ball and not sticking to our game plan are what kept us from winning the game. We think if we get another chance at them, we'll stick to our game plan more. We know we didn't do that (against Northwestern), but we know we can because we've shown it in the last three games we've played."
Halfpenny said the issues she will address related to the Northwestern game aren't major.
"For us, in terms of what we're looking at, there's no re-inventing the wheel," Halfpenny said. "Our game plan works. Our systems work. Our strategy works.
"We forced (Northwestern) into 24 turnovers, and we caused 17. You look at every piece of our game - we are scoring, we are feeding, we are assisting - we just need to be sharper in the basics. That's the one piece of our game plan that did fall apart, our fundamentals. We didn't have the type of focus that we typically have on groundballs, simple catch-and-throw things."
As Notre Dame sharpens its attack, starting with the regular-season finale Sunday against Louisville, the Irish will be giving themselves a chance to be a cut above the competition entering tournament time.
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent