By Michael Renahan, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - After opening the NCAA Tournament with two wins last weekend in Happy Valley, the Penn State Nittany Lions hit the road to take on a familiar foe in the Northwestern Wildcats.
The two teams have met twice this year with Northwestern winning both matchups.
"All bets are off with what happened in the regular season. There is this new energy, people know this could be their last game, so we know Northwestern is going to bring a pretty good fight and we just have to be ready to stay in our own game plan," head coach Missy Doherty said. "They play an aggressive defense, they try to rush our offense and we just have to be patient and in control and have the first step forward."
During the weekend, Penn State showcased a talented offense and a tenacious defense, two things they will need to beat the Wildcats. The Penn State offense was patient and diligent in their attack against both the University of Massachusetts Minutewomen and the Canisius College Golden Griffins.
The Nittany Lions had consistent ball movement on the offensive end, which allowed the cutters to work the field and get the best look possible. The quick feet of the attackers and midfielders opened the field up allowing the feeders to see them as they went to goal.
"I think both Canisius and UMass were really good opponents coming into this game. UMass, they pressure out a lot and we had to be able to handle that pressure. I thought the offense moved the ball much better than they had in the past and started to see each other really well," Doherty said. "It was a good lead up to our next game, but we just have to take care of the ball and do the simple things well and not come out of our game plan.
On the defensive end, Emi Smith had her one of her more solid performances of the 2013 season against UMass and the defense stood tall against two potent offenses. Smith, a freshman, made seven saves, including some crucial free position stops against both teams.
"She's a competitor. She knows that its playoff time and she came up with a great game against UMass and she had a really good game against Northwestern when we took them to overtime," Doherty said. "Like every other young player on the team, she's had some experiences that will be just like our experience on Saturday. When you know what you're kind of in for it takes some of the pressure off and hopefully she will be ready to play."
As a team, they forced bad passes, generated turnovers and, when it mattered most, shut down their opponent. Both Canisius and UMass were on the verge of completing comebacks when the Nittany Lions answered the challenged and pulled out victories.
The Northwestern Wildcats, reigning national champions, boast a quick effective defense that forces offenses out of their original game plan. They do their best to take away cutters and have a very effective goalkeeper in Bridget Bianco.
Bianco, a sophomore, is allowing 7.60 goals per game, good for No. 6 in the nation. Bianco was recently named first-team IWLCA All-West/Midwest Region. She, and the rest of the defense, has limited the Nittany Lions to just 11 goals in the two matchups.
Penn State, however, is ready for the challenge. With attackers like Maggie McCormick, Mackenzie Cyr and Molly Fernandez playing at their best, the Nittany Lions want to score more goals and compete with the defense. The Nittany Lions have one of the most balanced attacks in the conference and will need help from every player again to beat the Wildcats.
"I think, especially playing a team like Northwestern, you have to have a lot of legs. You have to be ready to run. We need a lot of people who are not going to sit back and play it safe, but are going to take some risks," Doherty said. "Thankfully, we have some athletic people on the bench who can come kind of come in and contribute, and you've kind of seen that the last couple games."
Currently, nine Penn State players have 13 goals or more. They are paced by McCormick with 49 goals and Kelly Lechner with 46 goals. Along with those two, the Nittany Lions have relied on the hot hands of Molly Fernandez and Mackenzie Cyr in the offensive end. The two have been crucial this postseason combining for 16 points in the first two games.
McCormick and Lechner both earned IWLCA All-American Honors on Wednesday. McCormick and Lechner were both named to the second team.
Defensively, the Nittany Lions match up well against the Wildcats. With the steady play from seniors Katie Guy and Colleen Shea, and the emergence of junior midfielder Lauren Purvis, Penn State looks to limit an offense that scores around 12 goals a game. Guy, recently named to the IWLCA All-American third team, is No. 10 in the nation with 1.95 caused turnovers a game. The defense continues to improve game and after game and Saturday should be no different.
The Wildcats are led by senior midfielder Erin Fitzgerald and junior midfielder Alyssa Leonard. Fitzgerald has scored over 50 goals this season, while Leonard has 32 of her own and set the school record for draw controls with 120.
On the road this season, the Nittany Lions are 4-5 and have been outscored 114-102. One of the losses, an 11-3 bout against Northwestern. Doherty, however, says the team has to look past its road record.
"I think a game is a game. Our tougher, higher ranked opponents have been on the road this year so it's somewhat reasonable that that's how our record worked out," Doherty said. "The NCAAs, whether you're on the road or at home, just provide a whole new sense of urgency and excitement so no matter where the game is you know it's going to be a good game."
The last time the Nittany Lions were in the quarterfinals they had their season ended by Florida, 15-2, in 2012. The team is looking to advance to the semi-finals for the first time since 1999. Game time is set for 8 p.m. in Evanston.
"I think they're excited," Doherty said. "Our young players have gotten a lot of experience because of the schedule we played. It's nice to feel that we know what we're in for and we just have to be ready to execute."
"This is a team where we realize we're one of the top teams in the country and we're going to play like that," McCormick said after the UMass win. "We expect to go to the Final Four, that's our goal, and we're going to do everything we can to get there."
Doherty, Penn State Ready For Northwestern
By Michael Renahan, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
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