Last year it was North Carolina. This year it's Maryland.
For the second year in a row, Northwestern was outplayed in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament, this time falling to No. 1 Maryland, 9-6, in the Final Four.
It looked ugly from the very beginning, though no one expected either team to run away with the game. Northwestern was forced to play from behind nearly the entire game, as Maryland's top-five attack scored early and consistently. Senior midfielder Kelly McPartland led the way for the Terps with three goals and one assist. Senior attacker Brooke Griffin and freshman Zoe Stukenberg each added two goals to propel Maryland past Northwestern. Despite shooting at only slightly under 40 percent (Maryland's season average was 49.5 percent), the Terps took 24 shots, seven more than Northwestern did, scoring too often for Northwestern to catch up.
By the end of the first half, the 'Cats trailed 5-2, something the 'Cats are not used to doing in the first half. This season, Northwestern outscored its opponents 112-82 in the game's first 30 minutes. With 16:02 left in the game, Northwestern was down 8-3. Six goals in a 16 minutes isn't unheard of, but it also isn't likely when only three balls have found the back of the net so far.
It didn't help that Northwestern's go-to players got off to a slow start and never quite managed to catch up. Junior midfielder Jess Carroll and senior midfielder Christy Turner stepped up to score Northwestern's first two goals, but senior midfielder Alyssa Leonard didn't score until the second half, her only goal of the night. She normally averages two goals per game.
A late-game rally showed some signs of life from Northwestern. Redshirt junior Kara Mupo got things going with 9:21 to play started with a shot taken almost from the 8-meter. But McPartland answered to put the game just out of reach for the 'Cats. Senior Kelly Rich and Mupo would each score, but it was too little, too late.
Northwestern didn't seem to bring its normally quick and clean offensive play with it to Towson, Md., resulting in very sloppy turnovers and poor shot choices. Northwestern committed 10 turnovers to Maryland's seven, and it's pretty difficult to score without possession of the ball. Players with good stick skills, including Leonard, Mupo and Turner, dropped passes and took low-probability shots in an effort to quicken the pace of the offense. But Maryland's defense did a good job shutting down the Northwestern attack, forcing four caused turnovers and saving five shots.
In opening minutes of the first half, Northwestern almost doubled Maryland's time of possession. And then the two centers had to step into the circle and take the draw. Record-holder Leonard didn't show up to this game, but Maryland's midfielders did. Maryland won 10 draw controls while Northwestern only grabbed seven. Northwestern averaged 13.45 draw controls per game on the season.
These turnovers and missed draw controls tell the story of this game, as Maryland capitalized on all but one draw control it got. Stukenberg's first goal was direct result of Taylor Cummings' win on the draw. Cummings passed her the ball, Northwestern's Nancy Dunbar fouled Stukenberg and Stukenberg got it past junior goalie Bridget Bianco. Bianco finished with an above-average eight saves on the night, but it wasn't enough. Northwestern's defense had its fair share of troubles, too, against Maryland, allowing preventable shots to slip past them and racking up 30 fouls to Maryland's 15.
By the end of the game, Northwestern had not one, not two, but three yellow cards in the game's final three and a half minutes. Leonard, defender Kerri Harrington and midfielder Kate Macdonald — all seniors — were all awarded yellow cards for illegal checks to the head. All three seniors were forced to watch the final seconds of their Northwestern careers tick away from the sidelines.
Coming into today's game, Maryland had only lost one game to North Carolina in the regular season. If this game is any indication, the Terps might just go all the way. First, they'll have to get past No. 2 Syracuse, who demolished No. 6 Virginia, 16-8. For the second time since 2004, Northwestern will have to watch that game from home.