GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Six ties. Seven lead changes. One overtime. And a 10th-consecutive berth to the NCAA Women's Lacrosse championship semifinals.
That was the outcome of an instant classic waged between conference rivals Northwestern and Florida Saturday in Gainesville, where the Wildcats overcame a pair of three-goal deficits to claim a 12-11 overtime victory, avenging two prior one-goal losses to the fourth-ranked Gators earlier this season.
Northwestern raised its record in NCAA quarterfinal games during the Kelly Amonte Hiller-era to 10-1, but today represented the first time (in two tries) that the Wildcats advanced to the national semifinals with a win on the road -- a tall order for Northwestern, which came into the game with an 0-3 all-time road record against the talented Gators (18-3). Amonte Hiller improved her career record in NCAA Tournament play to a staggering 36-3.
With the win, the Wildcats secured a trip next week to Johnny Unitas Stadium in Towson, Md., site of the 2014 NCAA Women's Lacrosse Championship. The fifth-seeded 'Cats have a date with No. 1 Maryland this Friday night (May 23) in the semifinals with a trip to Sunday's title game at stake. NU and Maryland, two future Big Ten Conference members, last met in the 2012 national semifinals, a 9-7 Wildcats victory on Long Island.
"We're obviously very excited about the win," Amonte Hiller said. "I think Florida is such an unbelievable team. Obviously they've tested us greatly this season, and beat us twice. I have a lot of respect for their players and their coaching staff. It just makes this win pretty special for us."
Northwestern's perennial place in championship weekend festivities was in question for the entirety of Saturday's back-and-forth affair, never more than when it trailed 8-5 with just over 20 minutes to play.
But the Wildcats clawed back thanks to the scoring efforts of their senior class, including Kat DeRonda's three goals in the final 17 minutes of regulation and overtime. DeRonda scored a free position goal with 4:51 left to pull Northwestern even at 11, and then came up with an unassisted tally with 16 seconds remaining in the first overtime period to lift NU to victory.
"I thought we moved the ball really well the whole game, and I think that that really showed in the last few seconds of the overtime," DeRonda said. "We all trust each other a lot. We've played together for a while, and I think just moving the ball and being unselfish is what's really made this team successful. I just happened to be there. It could have been anyone."
Fellow senior Alyssa Leonard also netted a hat trick and managed to give Florida fits in the draw circle throughout the day, winning seven for the day. Leonard's teammates also battled hard in and around the draw circle all afternoon, with Sheila Nesselbush (3), Kate Ivory (3) and Lauren Murray (2) all coming up with critical draw wins off loose balls.
Seven different Wildcats found the back of the net in the victory.
Northwestern began the game with a win in the draw circle and an early 8-meter goal by Leonard, a score which was quickly answered by UF when ALC Rookie of the Year Sammi Burgess knifed through the Wildcat defense and leveled the score at one apiece.
Following a called charge against the Wildcats, Florida made it 2-1 on a pass inside the fan that resulted in a Devon Schneider tally. The Gators then scored on transition following a Northwestern turnover before Tewaaraton Award finalist Shannon Gilroy turned the corner on an NU defender to score her 84th goal of the year and force a Wildcat timeout with 16:48 on the scoreboard.
It turned out to be the last goal the hosts would score in the first half as the Wildcats locked down on defense. Northwestern's run was kick-started on a perfectly executed 2-on-1 fast break that saw Mupo dish it off to freshman Lydia Cassada for the finish on the crease. Soon after, Amonte Hiller put the ball in the stick of Jess Carroll, who went to work on the dodge and earned an 8-meter attempt that she promptly buried to cut NU's deficit to one.
Off the next draw, senior Kate Macdonald scored on a superb individual effort weaving through the Florida defense to pull the Wildcats level at four. As Florida worked its attack on the next possession, a turnover near the restraining line started another fast-break for the Wildcats, with Leonard hitting Mupo on the run for a goal that gave NU its first lead since it was 1-0.
Though Mupo's goal came with 19.5 seconds left in the half, it wasn't quite time to head to the locker room. Florida was awarded an 8-meter shot with only half a second showing on the clock, and although UF's shot hit the back of the net, it was ruled to have done so after the first half horn, allowing Northwestern to maintain its 5-4 lead into halftime.
The Gators came out strong from the intermission, scoring twice in less than two minutes to regain a 6-5 advantage. They would go on to score a total of four straight before Northwestern managed to stem the tide on a determined effort by senior and Florida native Christy Turner, who netted an 8-meter goal for her 16th of the year.
Moments later, Leonard took the ball behind the cage and lulled her defender to sleep before darting to the front of the net to bounce a shot past Mary-Sean Wilcox. Florida answered in short order on a darting goal by Sammi Burgess, but Northwestern cut it back to one on a man-up goal by Kat DeRonda.
Macdonald provided the equalizer on NU's next possession when she skirted by her defender and -- after a change in the cage for the Gators to redshirt senior Cara Canington -- Leonard scored her third when she corralled a loose ball out of the air and fired it home to give the Wildcats a one-goal lead.
After Leonard was assessed a yellow card, Northwestern's Bridget Bianco came up with a big save on the Florida man-up opportunity, but the Gatros still managed to tie the score at 10 on a goal by Sam Darcangelo. Florida then seized an 11-10 lead on a laser by Lauren Lea before DeRonda's 8-meter goal drew Northwestern level and sent the game to overtime.
Northwestern controlled possession for the near entirety of the six-minute OT session and appeared to have struck first on a leaping score by Leonard, a tally that was waived off on a charge call by the officials. But NU again won the draw to start the second half of overtime and worked the clock down to under 30 seconds before Northwestern's ball movement sent the ball to DeRonda for the game-winner.