Championship Weekend Preview: Denver vs. Northwestern

What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? In about 24 hours’ time, we’re going to find out when 5th-seeded Denver’s top-ranked defense (5.82 GAA) meets #1-seeded Northwestern’s top-ranked offense (17.00 GPG) at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina in the first national semifinal. Stopping Northwestern’s deadly attack duo of Izzy Scane and Erin Coykendall – both of whom are Tewaaraton Award finalists – is Denver’s next big test in a season chock full of them.

Until last Thursday’s heroic defensive effort that limited defending national champion North Carolina to just four goals and zero in the final 35 minutes, unbeaten Denver was an unknown quantity to the greater college lacrosse community. They knew the Pioneers were undefeated, sure, but they also knew they played in the BIG EAST and the assumption was that they must have had an easy path to that record (because apparently, it’s impossible to look at a team’s schedule online in 2023). You know the result of that oversight – Denver was disrespected in a big way by the committee and was assigned the #5 seed. Yes, it’s getting repetitive, but it’s still important.

Now, with their 5-4 Quarterfinal thriller over the Tar Heels in the rearview, the lacrosse establishment has finally taken notice of the Pioneers and their elite zone defense which, as you also know, has yet to give up more than nine goals this season. It’s a feat that will no doubt be tested by Scane and Coykendall, who account for 7.10 of the Wildcats’ NCAA-best 17.00 goals per game.

Who is Northwestern?

Northwestern is one of the nation’s proudest women’s lacrosse programs. Under head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller since 2001, the Wildcats won seven national titles in eight years from 2005 to 2012. The only season they didn’t win it all was in 2010 when Maryland beat the Wildcats to win their 10th. Since then, though, NU has yet to add to their seven titles despite making five more Championship Weekend appearances, losing in the semifinals each time.

This year, the Wildcats are the overwhelming favorites, and rightly so. Their offense is a finely tuned machine and is much more than just Scane and Coykendall. Yes, they command the utmost attention and have earned all the headlines, but after their 120 and 98 points, respectively, Hailey Rhatigan (66) and Madison Taylor (64) are the other two NU players who have recorded better than 60 points. Even if the Pioneers can take Scane and Coykendall out of the game, there are plenty more challenges elsewhere on the Wildcats’ attack. For comparison’s sake, Denver only has one player who’s tallied more than 60 points – Julia Gilbert, who has 66.

Where Denver’s defense has yet to give up more than nine goals in a game, Northwestern’s offense has a similarly impressive stat – they only scored fewer than 13 goals in a game just once when they survived a very real upset bid from Michigan in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. It was an 8-7 NU victory in the season’s third meeting between the Big Ten foes. Even in their season-opening and only loss of the season to Syracuse, Northwestern found twine 15 times (they lost 16-15).

Defensively, though, the Wildcats have been less perfect, but they’re still elite, ranking 12th nationally, allowing 9.15 goals per game. When you have the nation’s best offense, you have much more room for error on the defensive end. Northwestern’s senior starting goalkeeper, Molly Laliberty, has been rock-solid in the crease when things do break down, though. She’s allowed just 8.91 goals per game and boasts a .471 save percentage, ranking her just outside the top 20.

Key Takeaways from the UNC Victory

All season long, Denver knew they could win ugly. It didn’t matter how many goals they scored, just so long as they scored at least one more than the opposition. They handily dispatched the teams that they were supposed to beat (i.e., 23-6 over Xavier, 15-2 over Georgetown, etc.) but they allowed their strategy to shine in games like their 8-7 victory over Maryland and 13-8 victory over Boston College. Neither game was aesthetically beautiful but they were effective, calculated takedowns in which they simply outlasted their opponents.

As well as those two games highlighted the Pioneers’ season, there may be no better example of 2023 than last Thursday’s Quarterfinal victory over North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Denver’s offense didn’t make the most of their many possessions but the defense, led by senior captain Sam Thacker, forced UNC out of their rhythm, took away all of their best scoring chances, and kept the Pioneers within striking distance, even during UNC’s first-half 4-0 run. The effort was enough to allow Julia Gilbert to find the back of the net twice in the second half before Kayla DeRose beat the shot clock buzzer with a perfect bounce shot to win the game.

It was Denver lacrosse to a T. No, it wasn’t pretty. Yes, it was stressful for the crowd. But the Pioneers never panicked and never let the game get out of reach. It’s a performance that they are going to have to replicate and even improve upon to beat Northwestern tomorrow. North Carolina had a strong offensive attack but the Pioneers’ defense has yet to see a lethal duo like Scane and Coykendall this year. If DU can find a way to limit their production, they’re still going to have to do a better job of maximizing the offensive opportunities that the defense provides, something they struggled to do against UNC’s defense and goalkeeping, which was statistically nearly identical to Northwestern’s.

“I’m walking out and people are like, ‘Oh, you’re going to need to score more goals than that to beat Northwestern,'” DU head coach Liza Kelly quipped after the Quarterfinal victory in Chapel Hill. “I don’t know. I don’t know that we will. We are who we are and we know that we can get the ball back, we know that we can do really good things, we just have faith that if we grind it out, we’ll find a way.

The biggest takeaway from the UNC victory, though, is that the Pioneers simply found a way to win when the lights were at their brightest. No, the offense didn’t have the kind of performance that they hoped they would but all across the field, the Pioneers adapted to the flow of the game and battled to a tight victory. Denver’s ability to adapt to what the game dictates may be why they pull off another upset that shocks the lacrosse community tomorrow afternoon.

Can DU really do it again?

I mean, they haven’t lost yet, so why not? Northwestern is a better team than UNC, full stop, and they’re probably the most talented team in the country. But they’re not invincible. There are two of Northwestern’s games that are worth looking at to find out how tomorrow’s game might go. The first is their 8-7 nailbiter against Michigan in the second round, which was mentioned above, and the second was their second-round, 16-6 victory over Loyola Maryland.

Northwestern’s upset-surviving victory over Michigan – a team that Denver beat 7-5 in early March – might provide the Pioneers with the perfect blueprint to beat the Wildcats. It was, by no means, a great game for the Wolverines. Goalkeeper Maya Santa Maria made 10 saves on 18 NU shots on goal and their clearing game only went 18-23. But it was their ability to limit Northwestern’s chances that kept them in the game until the final buzzer. Not only did they hold Northwestern to just 18 shots on goal, a season-low for the Wildcats, they only gave up one goal on Northwestern’s seven free position attempts. Izzy Scane and Erin Coykendall each still had good games, combining for three goals and five points but it was an admirable defensive effort even though their late 4th-quarter push came up just a goal short.

On the other hand, though, Northwestern’s victory over Loyola in the Quarterfinals shows what can happen when NU’s offense finds its rhythm early and often, even against a potent defense. Loyola’s defense, even after the 16-6 Quarterfinals loss, ranks second in the nation. They allowed just 7.09 goals per game throughout the season but Scane and Coykendall exploded for a combined 10 goals (7 for Scane, 3 for Coykendall). Loyola didn’t do themselves any favors, though, earning six of the game’s 10(!) yellow cards which certainly helped Northwestern’s offense take control of the game. Scane and Coykendall commanded the headlines with their performances but the Wildcats still boasted seven different goal-scorers en route to the 10-goal victory. Denver has yet to give up more than nine goals in a game but this Loyola game should serve as a helpful cautionary tale that if they commit unforced errors and allow Northwestern’s offense to get going early and often, they could be the Wildcats offense’s next victim.

If Denver can replicate Michigan’s second-round performance, though, they will have a real shot to upset the tournament favorites. Michigan’s defense was good this year but Denver’s ‘Hot Pink’ is much better and they boast defensive weapons that the Wolverines couldn’t. Sam Thacker, of course, leads the way and sets the tone for the nation’s best defense but goalkeeper Emilia Bohi may end up being the difference as she will be the best goalkeeper Northwestern has faced all season.

So the short answer is yes, the Pioneers really can do it again and shock the lacrosse establishment one more time. But the Northwestern challenge is much tougher than the one that UNC presented and they’ll have to play a nearly perfect game if they’re going to advance to Sunday’s championship game against the winner of the other semifinal matchup between #2 Syracuse and #3 Boston College.

No matter how the game turns out, though, we are going to get treated to one of the best, most fascinating matchups in recent history. It’s not often that you get to watch the country’s best offense take on the country’s best defense with a spot in the national title game on the line.

What does happen when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? You’ll have to tune in tomorrow afternoon at 1 pm MT on ESPNU to find out.

Top photo credit: Jamie Schwaberow/Clarkson Creative Photography via DU Athletics.

2 thoughts on “Championship Weekend Preview: Denver vs. Northwestern”

  1. That whirring sound you hear is the sound of John Evans, who founded both DU and NU in the mid-19th Century, spinning in his grave!

    This has to be the most important game ever played between his two schools in any sport, and this could certainly be one of the great games in DU athletics history if the Pios’ hot pink defense can bend the play of the game to the way they want it to unfold — a grind-it-out victory.

    Defensively, it’s about holding the shape, not getting caught in switches at the elbows, timing the doubles, anticipating those skip passes, not letting NU distribute from X or GLE and avoiding yellow cards and SS violations in or near the 8 meter.

    I also think DU has to do well on free positions, both offensively and defensively, and Bohi needs 50%+ in saves to have a shot at this, because DU is probably going to get outshot. NU is faster, more experienced, deeper and more skilled than UNC is…

    I imagine that NU will try to face-guard Gilbert when they are on defense, so DU players like Black and Dineen will need to convert on their shooting opportunities, and Jenkins will need to be better on draw controls than she was vs UNC, which could really help Denver to retain possession in big moments.

    Beating UNC was not an upset in my mind, but beating NU certainly will be. Pios need to relax and play their game and be poised when the opportunities come….

    Go get ’em, Pios!

  2. Yessir, good article, and good comment above, Swami. It would be logical to think that Northwestern’s potent offense will be able to score more than 10 goals, and that DU would have trouble keeping up in a shootout. But the UNC game leads me to think that DU’s defense can contain anyone, even Northwestern. I think the first quarter of the game will tell the tale. Will Northwestern’s stars be able to break through our zone early, or will they face the same fate as DU’s 22 other victims? We might have to score 8 or 9 goals to win this one, but I think DU can do it. Good luck, Pioneers! Win this, and DU might even be the favorites to win the next game.

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