After 30 minutes, No. 2 Northwestern was in control of its 2021 NCAA Tournament debut against Denver.
The Wildcats (14-0, 11-0 Big Ten), who boast the nation’s top scoring offense, consistently found a way to the net and maintained possession by outnumbering the Pioneers (16-2, 10-0 Big East) on draw controls.
But the first half did not come without its flaws. NU missed 15 shots, committed 11 turnovers and allowed Denver to gain some momentum heading into the locker room. With 30 seconds remaining in the first half, defender Molly Little fired a rocket past junior Cats goalie Madison Doucette to punctuate a 2-0 run and make the score 9-4.
Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller knew that the Pioneers, fresh off a Friday defeat of Stanford, were not a squad to underestimate. As a result, she told the Cats that they needed to be “relentless” for the rest of the postseason matchup.
“It’s tough to play a team that… played on Friday and we were rested,” Amonte Hiller said. “I knew that we could really put our foot on the gas pedal and do our thing and continue to put a lot of pressure on them.”
Half an hour later, NU’s players walked out of Martin Stadium having heeded their coach’s words.
In its statement 19-4 victory, the Cats outscored Denver 10-0 in the second half behind goals from five different players. Defensively, NU stifled any opportunities the Pioneers could find on the attack and in the draw circle by winning eight of 11 draw controls and allowing only one free-position shot.
“We all just reminded each other ‘we’re in control here. This is our game, not theirs,’” junior attacker Izzy Scane said. “We stuck to what we knew on offense instead of playing towards what their defense wanted us to do, and I think that allowed us to start scoring more goals and play our game.”
Facing an aggressive defense in Denver, Scane knew she and the Cats needed to be in sync when the pressure arrived. In practice, the Cats prepared for these press situations by preaching the importance of playing with confidence and emphasizing that teammates would be open when a player beat their defender.
NU demonstrated this skill in the second half as six of the team’s goals in the frame came on assists. Scane, fellow All-Big Ten First Team honoree Lauren Gilbert and sophomore attacker Erin Coykendall either scored or assisted on eight of the team’s 10 goals, with Coykendall dishing out a team-leading six assists.
Coykendall, who connected with Scane on four goals, has proven herself as NU’s go-to player for setting up scoring opportunities, leading the team with 42 assists this season. She credited NU’s fast-paced second half offense with throwing the Pioneers off balance, allowing her to set up assist opportunities.
Additionally, Coykendall demonstrated her scoring ability by notching two goals in the final 30 minutes.
“I have tried to work on being more of a threat and making teams respect me more,” Coykendall said. “Being able to hit those over-the-top passes or those cuts from low is a big part of my game, but I think that if (teams) leave me open, make sure that they respect me.”
While offensive-minded players such as Scane, Gilbert and All-Big Ten Second Team honoree Sammy Mueller were the focus of Denver’s defense, senior midfielder Jill Girardi held the Pioneers’ attack in check. Girardi, who forced a career-high five caused turnovers, anchored a Cats defensive effort that allowed only seven shots in 30 minutes.
Following an injury to junior Elle Hansen, Amonte Hiller said Girardi was moved from her natural position to defense. She added that Girardi’s athleticism and growing confidence has been an asset to the unit.
The New York native also played a key role of shifting possession to NU throughout the game by winning 12 draw controls — including four in the second half.
“We stuck to the same game plan,” Girardi said. “Cause pressure, and then give it to our attack and have them get it to goal. It always works.”
Defeating a physical team like Denver, who racked up four yellow cards in the second half, is the first step of the Cats bringing a national championship back to Evanston for the first time since 2012.
As the team prepares to face No. 7 Duke Saturday in Evanston, Amonte Hiller has a key goal for her team to maintain its success in the postseason.
“Play fearless,” Amonte Hiller said. “That’s really what we emphasize.”
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