Northwestern tough to stop on title run

BOSTON -- Dartmouth has just one task on its to-do list Sunday in the NCAA women's lacrosse championship game.

Stop Northwestern.

Easier said than done.

The Northwestern Wildcats (19-1), defending national champions, got their second test of the season Friday night at Boston University's Nickerson Field in front of a crowd of 3,701. Both tests came courtesy of the No. 1 seed Duke Blue Devils, but unlike in the teams' first meeting (a 16-10 Duke win), Northwestern emerged victorious in overtime, 11-10.

In a grueling sideline-to-sideline battle, Duke appeared to have every advantage. The Blue Devils controlled the ball, caused more turnovers, fouled less, shot more, controlled the draw, even had more free position shots.

The Blue Devils won in nearly every statistical category -- except on the scoreboard.

"Northwestern has an outstanding offense," said Duke coach Kerstin Kimel. "We gave them too many easy looks. We took away their first and second options, but they were able to take advantage of their third and fourth options too easily, too often."

Duke's Katie Chrest summed it up more succinctly: "Northwestern was just able to find a way to score."

That will be Dartmouth's seemingly impossible challenge on Sunday -- stopping a team that has the field sense to use its many offensive weapons and the experience to come up with big plays in tight spots.

Northwestern junior Kristen Kjellman put together yet another highlight-reel performance -- one which should solidify her as the recipient of this year's Terwarrton Trophy (awarded to college lacrosse's top player). Kjellman tallied four goals and one assist for a team-high five points.

Senior attacker Sarah Albrecht, however, came up with the biggest goal. With 37 seconds remaining in the first overtime period, Albrecht willed a goal past Duke keeper Megan Huether.

"I think Sarah got some support from above," said coach Kelly Amonte Hiller. "She beat two defenders. She was a force. I think Sarah was a possessed woman. She is a fifth-year senior. This is her last opportunity in front of a home crowd. I think she just wanted it in."

But the key to Northwestern's success in this tournament doesn't even have the benefit of having played in last year's title run. When Chrest attempted to even the score with less than 2 minutes remaining in the second overtime period, it was freshman goalie Morgan Lathrop who was there with a stick in her face. Of Lathrop's 10 saves in the game, this was clearly the most important.

"I don't really remember it," Lathrop said minutes after the game ended. "I was just trying to make contact."

"It was not really my best shot, but [Lathrop] made a good save," Chrest said.

Riding a rookie goalie to the title game isn't unheard of, but considering that each of the other three participants in this weekend's semifinals sport a senior keeper, it's not a common practice, either. After the Duke loss in April, Lathrop lost her starting position.

The loss -- and subsequent benching -- provided the motivation Lathrop needed. And she wasn't alone.

"We talked a lot about the [Duke victory]," Hiller said. "We said it's not going to be a wake-up call unless we actually treat it as a wake-up call. We had to work harder and get better. Our team really put that into action."

That a single loss could provide such motivation for an already talented and decorated squad shows the type of work ethic and determination the Wildcats exhibited on the field against Duke. It is matched only by Dartmouth's perseverance through its struggles this season. An early loss to Cornell nearly derailed the Big Green. Coach Amy Patton kept her team focused by showing them the prize: She took the team for a short visit to Nickerson Field after Dartmouth faced Harvard midseason.

"We were at a tough time in our season, and making our way back and starting to win again, and we popped over and looked at this field after our Harvard game. I remember looking in the kids eyes and saying, we can do this, we can get here. And it was at a time where it was pretty critical for us to make a turn," Patton said.

But even after enduring an emotionally and physically draining slugfest, don't expect these Cats to nap on Dartmouth (14-5). While Northwestern hasn't been in many tight games, beating the team that broke their 22-game winning streak was a big confidence boost for the Wildcats.

In Dartmouth's 14-8 rout of Notre Dame in the late game on Friday, the Big Green got off to a 4-0 lead in the first eight minutes of the contest. That might not have been such a surprise if the goals had come courtesy of Duke or Northwestern -- or even Notre Dame, known for its explosive offense. The normally defensive-minded Dartmouth surprised many by taking such a quick lead, perhaps most of all the Irish, who were never able to recover.

"I think Dartmouth is really quick and I think they had a really good gameplan. I think they thought they could go after some people on our team and we tried to address that at halftime," said Notre Dame coach Tracy Coyne after the game. "Dartmouth is very quick off the draw, and their quickness doesn't show up on tape."

In a game many forecasted to be the junior varsity version of the first semifinal game, Dartmouth proved that it was a cut above what many believed it to be. And although many felt that the Duke-Northwestern rematch should have been saved for the title game, Dartmouth proved it belonged. The Big Green will change even more minds with a win -- or at least a competitive showing -- against Northwestern on Sunday.

Boasting a balanced offense (six different players scored for Dartmouth), an attacking midfielder in Whitney Douthett (four goals, two assists), and one of the nation's top goalkeepers in senior Devon Willis, the Big Green present problems in every area of the field.

"[Willis] is a great goalie. You can definitely tell she's a major leader," said Irish attacker Caitlin McKinney, who finished with a hat trick and an assist.

"I think the best part of our attack is that anyone of us can step up and have a good game," added Douthett.

This is the second trip to the NCAA semifinals for both teams, and that experience may have been the difference in both wins. It is certainly something that will play into Sunday's championship game.

When asked what advice the upperclassmen gave her on playing in the title game, Lathrop said, "They told me to go out there like it's any other game -- put everything on the line. Play with heart and play with passion."

Heart and passion will not be in short supply in Boston on Sunday.

Lauren Reynolds is a college sports editor at ESPN.com. She can be reached at lauren.k.reynolds@espn3.com.