Northwestern women's lacrosse vs. Notre Dame, first-round NCAA touney preview

[UPDATE: NU beats Notre Dame, 12-7, pulling away in the second half with a 6-3 run. The Wildcats now advance to face either Duke or Virginia next weekend at home.]

No. 2 Northwestern's quest for its seventh women's lacrosse national championship begins in earnest Saturday, with the Wildcats (17-2) hosting No. 8 Notre Dame (13-4) in a first-round NCAA tournament match. This is the second time in three weeks that the two teams have played, with NU easily dispatching the Fighting Irish, 17-7, on April 25.

But for the first time in eight years, NU enters the NCAA tournament on the heels of a loss. Until last weekend, when they were thoroughly manhandled by Florida, the Wildcats had won every single American Lacrosse Conference tournament since it was instituted in 2005. And in the two years before that, NU had won its final regular season game.

All of those seasons, except for one, ended with a national championship. So how will the Wildcats respond this year, after a very poor performance against Florida?

We'll find out at 3 p.m. CT at Lakeside Field. The game is being broadcast online on the Big Ten Digital Network (subscription required), and will air on tape on BTN next Monday at 4:30 p.m. CT. If you're in town and want to go to the game, tickets are $8, but students get in free, courtesy of head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller.

The Wildcats are the obvious favorites in this match-up. Besides NU's dominating win three weeks back, Notre Dame is also without its second-leading goal scorer, Lindsay Powell, who tore her ACL in practice recently.The Irish also come in with a 5-4 record in their last eight games, after starting out the year 8-0. Their most recent game was an 11-9 loss to eventual Big East champion Loyola (Md.) in the conference semifinals.

The Irish are led by junior attack Jaimie Morrison (34 goals, 14 ground balls), senior attack Maggie Tamasitis (22 goals, 57 assists, 15 ground balls) and sophomore midfielder Margaret Smith (35 ground balls, 47 draw controls, 29 caused turnovers). Junior goalkeeper Ellie Hilling has a 10.8 GAA and .459 save percentage.

NU, meanwhile, has Tewaaraton Trophy finalist Taylor Thornton. Thornton, a junior do-everything defender, was named one of five finalists for lacrosse's Heisman earlier this week, after already having been named the ALC's player of the year, with a career best 27 goals, 44 ground balls, 59 draw controls and 15 caused turnovers.

Senior attack Shannon Smith, last year's Tewaaraton Trophy winner, will lead NU's offense, needing just two goals to tie NU's all-time career record of 250. She comes in with 60 goals and 20 assists on the year. Junior attack Erin Fitzgerald has 46 goals on the season. In net, Brianne LoManto ranks second in the NCAA in goals-against-average at 7.26.

NU and Notre Dame have met three times in the postseason, with first-round match-ups in 2004, 2008 and 2010, all of them Wildcat wins. Another win on Saturday could tie Hiller for most career postseason coaching wins (29) with her former coach Cindy Timchal, who is leading Navy in its first-round match against UNC, and Princeton head coach Chris Sailer.

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