Leonard's four goals lead Northwestern scoring barrage vs. Penn St. in quarters
EVANSTON, Ill. -- By working its way to a 5-0 lead and holding Penn State without a shot for the first 17 minutes of the game, Northwestern set the tone for what turned into a convincing 15-7 win in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Women's Lacrosse Championship.
Northwestern, which led 13-3 at the half and by as many as 12 in the second half, earned a spot in the tournament's national semifinals for a ninth consecutive season, setting the stage for a rematch with North Carolina.
"I think down the stretch the girls have been really focused, and it takes a lot of focus to be able to put a team away," head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said. "You have them on the ropes, you got to get that knockout punch and I think earlier in the year we lacked the focus to be able to get over the hump. Every single player since our loss to Florida has been really committed, and that's the difference, that level of focus."
The 'Cats improved to 19-0 all-time in NCAA tournament home games under Amonte Hiller and extended their current winning streak in tournament play to 10 in a row dating back to 2011.
"I think people think it's automatic that we're going to go to the [semifinals], but it's very hard to get there," Amonte Hiller said. "With the expansion of the [NCAA Women's Lacrosse] Tournament, there were so many great teams in the tournament and to be one of those four teams left is an honor."
Penn State was limited to three first-half goals and 16 total shots.
Nine total Wildcats found the back of the net, led by junior Alyssa Leonard's career-high-tying four goals and a hat trick by senior Erin Fitzgerald.
Senior Taylor Thornton added one goal and one assist while controlling play in the midfield to the tune of five ground balls and five draw controls.
As usual, Thornton's partner in the midfield was fellow senior Gabriella Flibotte, who racked up four ground balls and four draw controls. She matched Thornton with two caused turnovers.
Northwestern cruised on the draw control circle in the first half, winning 13 of 17 before halftime. That dominance, coupled with a defensive effort that caused turnovers early and often, allowed NU to overwhelmingly control possession in the early going. The Wildcats held a 2-0 lead 10 minutes in thanks to eight-meter goals by Fitzgerald and Ali Cassera. They made it 3-0 when a Thornton shot was deflected by a Penn State defender past the Lions' goalkeeper for Thornton's 28th goal of the year.
Just past the halfway mark of the opening 30 minutes, Northwestern extended its lead to four when Beatrice Conley finished a pass by junior Kate Macdonald. Less than two minutes later, Thornton set up Kelly Rich for a 5-0 cushion.
The Lions scored on their first shot of the evening at the 12:32 mark, but junior Christy Turner quickly answered with an eight-meter goal, one of five free-position tallies for Northwestern on the evening.
Leonard and junior Kat DeRonda each managed unassisted efforts around the crease to extend the lead before Fitzgerald scored her 58th of the season, capping NU's game-opening run at 10-1 with 5:10 still left in the first.
Rich notched her second of the period before Leonard struck twice in the final 1:10 before intermission. PSU's Madison Cyr appeared to score the final goal of the half with 16 seconds showing on the clock, but Leonard won the ensuing draw and quickly took it down the field to restore a 10-goal Northwestern lead at the break.
A deflated Penn State squad saw its deficit grow even larger as seniors Amanda Macaluso and Fitzgerald converted eight-meter attempts for the first two goals out of halftime, setting the score at 15-3 and all but ensuring a ninth consecutive berth in the semifinals for the Wildcats.