Northwestern survived an early scare in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament, but still managed to defeat Rutgers 24-14 Friday and secure its spot in the conference championship game.
The Wildcats (12-0, 12-0 Big Ten) faced a serious test this season from the Scarlet Knights (6-8, 6-8 Big Ten), who led by two goals early in the matchup. NU climbed back to lead 11-7 at halftime, but Rutgers answered with four straight goals to open the second half, tying the game at 11 with just over 26 minutes remaining.
But after that point, it was the Cats’ game. The purple-and-white outscored the Scarlet Knights 13-3 behind goals from seven different players.
“We really just focused on bringing positivity to the players and being a tough team,” graduate student attacker Lindsey McKone said of the team’s comeback.
Graduate student attacker Sammy Mueller led NU with six goals and senior attacker Lauren Gilbert was close behind, notching five. The Cats’ offense delivered a true team performance, as six different players recorded multiple goals.
NU’s defense also played a significant role in the team’s victory. Junior goalkeeper Madison Doucette made eight saves, and sophomore goalkeeper Logan Lillie added two during the last two minutes of the game.The Cats also recorded 29 ground balls and caused 12 turnovers during the matchup.
Gilbert said the Cats didn’t play as cleanly as they hoped to, but she was proud that the team rebounded after the game was tied in the second half.
“We wanted to be at a different point at that time of the game, but that’s when tough teams really pull through and show their grit and determination and we did that,” Gilbert said.
Draw controls played a big role in the NU taking control. The Cats struggled off the draw in the first half, winning seven to Rutgers’ 12. NU still won less than half of all draws during the second half, but controlled nine to Rutgers’ 12.
Gilbert said coach Kelly Amonte Hiller stresses that draw controls are “momentum shifters,” and winning more of them in the second half was an important part of the team’s victory.
While NU won by a decisive margin, it was slightly narrower than the Cats’ previous victories against Rutgers in 2021. When the teams met for a weekend double-header in March, NU won 22-10 and 21-7.
McKone said the Cats should expect other teams to bring a strong game during the postseason. She added she was impressed by NU’s ability to string consecutive plays and demonstrate mental toughness.
The Cats’ victory secured a spot in Sunday’s Big Tournament Championship, where they will face conference rival Maryland. NU has defeated the Terrapins twice in 2021, winning both contests by double-digit margins. A win on Sunday would give NU its second Big Ten Tournament title in program history.
“We want to play within ourselves and make sure we do what we can to put ourselves in a position to win,” McKone said.
McKone also said it can be difficult to win against any team three times, causing the Cats to work on the “focus and intent” of each play in preparation for Sunday.
Gilbert also shared that NU had to “get the jitters out” during its game against Rutgers, emphasizing that the team needs to be “mentally locked in” during the championship game.
“This team has had one focus this season of being a one-play-at-a-time type of team, and I think we need to bring that same mentality (against Maryland) even when there’s a championship on the line,” Gilbert said.
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