May 21, 2013

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Sheehan: Setting the Stage for Final Four Weekend

by Sheehan Stanwick Burch | LaxMagazine.com

Alyssa Leonard seemed to take her All-American snub personally, dominating draws once again in Northwestern's quarterfinal win over Penn State on Saturday.

North Carolina, Syracuse, Northwestern and Maryland all secured spots in this weekend's final four on Memorial Day weekend. To be honest, I don't think that many folks are surprised that these teams made it to championship weekend.

The NCAA seeded these teams in the top four slots, so technically the right teams advanced. I did think that Florida would be playing for a national championship, but the loss to Northwestern in the ALC title game cost them a top-four seed and, potentially, a much easier path to Villanova.

Look back at the quarterfinals

North Carolina 13, Virginia 9

North Carolina got off to a fantastic (and fast) start against Virginia, scoring three goals in the opening minute. The first half ended with the Tar Heels scoring on all 10 of their shots to take a 10-2 lead. Virginia battled back in the second half and scored the last five goals of the game. However, UNC was able to hold on for the 13-9 victory, despite having 17 turnovers.

Northwestern 15, Penn State 7

Northwestern has been a regular in the women's final four over much of this decade, and this year will be no different. The Wildcats have cruised easily in their post-season play this year. Their struggles in the regular season, most notably the 22-4 loss they suffered against Florida at the end of April, are what have made them so strong in the playoffs. During the regular season, Northwestern often dug themselves into first-half deficits, only to climb back for a victory. On Saturday against Penn State, Northwestern answered their coaches' call. The Wildcats started strong, dominated possession and outshot Penn State 20-4 in the opening half. They never looked back, rolling to 15-7 win. Penn State struggled to get the ball, as they were on the losing end of the draw control battle, securing just 7 of 24.

The biggest takeaway from this game was the play of Northwestern's Alyssa Leonard. Here's a little background. Leonard was snubbed from the All-American list released last week...and I don't mean being left off the first team. I mean she did not garner any recognition. I don't understand it. Leonard has 122 draw controls on the season and has been without a doubt one of the key reasons Northwestern has succeeded this year. She also is second on the team in scoring, so she clearly is not the women's version of a "FOGO." The bottom line: Leonard finished the day with four goals and two draw controls, showing to me that she is hungry and has something to prove.

Syracuse 13, Florida 9

For two high-powered offenses, it was surprising that this game was tied 4-4 heading into the second half. Florida had 13 turnovers to Syracuse's five, and Syracuse put up five more shots on the day. This game was going to be close and it was clear that the team with fewer mistakes was going to be victorious. Florida's goalkeeper, Mikey Meagher, finished her stellar career with 12 saves. However, the dynamic duo of Syracuse's keepers, Kelsey Richardson and Alyssa Constantino, once again split time. They combined for nine saves and, more importantly, held the Gators to under 10 goals. This was the 13th consecutive game Syracuse held its opponent to less than 10 goals.

Maryland 14, Duke 9

Maryland is still undefeated and no one has really come close to threatening them. To be completely honest, Duke is lucky to have lost by only five. The Blue Devils' freshman goalkeeper, Kelsey Duryea, displayed why she was tabbed a second-team All-American with 15 saves. Duke did have the edge in draws, controlling 16 to Maryland's 10. However, that advantage was effectively nullified by Duke's turnovers, eight more than Maryland had on the day. The Terps' Alex Aust led the way for Maryland, with five goals and two assists, and she continues to make a strong case for the Tewaaraton Award.

A look ahead to the weekend

I am not going to make predictions, but offer questions that I think will decide the outcome of these semifinal games. All four of these teams are very familiar with each other and, as a result, they have been a part of some excellent and close battles.

No. 2 North Carolina vs. No. 3 Northwestern, 5 p.m. ET Friday (ESPN3.com)

- Will Northwestern utilize the faceguard specialist Kerri Harrington?

- Can North Carolina compete on the draw control?

- Who can win the ground ball battle?

It's important to note that UNC won the first meeting against Northwestern earlier this season 11-8, despite only winning 5 of 21 draw controls.

No. 1 Maryland vs. No. 4 Syracuse, 7:30 p.m. ET Friday (ESPN3.com)

- Will Syracuse try to maintain possession on their attacking end or try and run with Maryland?

- How will Syracuse's zone defense fair against the talented Maryland offense?


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