No. 2 Northwestern Wears Down Irish for First-Round Victory

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Paced by a 15-5 advantage on draw controls, No. 2 Northwestern controlled possession and wore down eighth-ranked Notre Dame en route to a 12-7 victory in the first round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament Saturday in Evanston.

Sophomore Alyssa Leonard was the catalyst off the draw with eight on the afternoon, helping the Wildcats win for the 13th straight time against the Fighting Irish and for the 29th time in 31 all-time NCAA Tournament games under head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller.

In a game that was tied at three with less than three minutes remaining before halftime, Northwestern used its trademark high-pressure defense and benefited from 15 Irish turnovers to outscore its opponent 9-4 over the final 32-plus minutes.

"It's exciting just to be back in the NCAA Tournament and to win against a great Notre Dame team," said Amonte Hiller, who with the win tied her former mentor, Cindy Timchal, for second in career NCAA Tournament coaching victories with 29. "Our team progressively got better throughout the game, our defense did a nice job pressuring out and maybe forcing Notre Dame to rush their shots."

NCAA Round 1 Game Highlights

For Amonte Hiller, NU's dominance on the draw circle was a result of the emphasis placed on it throughout its most recent week of practice.

"We worked harder (on the draw), we worked on it every single day, we committed to it, and you see what happens," she said. "I took it personally (losing 18-5 on draws to Florida last Saturday), I think many people on our team personally, and they went out there (today) and battled like it was the end of their life every single draw. That's what you have to do to win draw controls and 50-50 balls."

"It's all about quickness up there, they had a couple different people drawing, all very good, and the ball happened to be going straight up," said Leonard of her success in the circle. "Wherever that ball was, that's where I was going."

Sophomore Erin Fitzgerald led NU with three goals -- including one with 49 seconds left before half and another just 1:23 after intermission to give the 'Cats a key three-goal lead -- while ALC Player of the Year Taylor Thornton led all players with five ground balls.

After goals in the first eight minutes by Fitzgerald and Notre Dame's Caitlin Gargan left the game tied at one, both teams struggled to overcome a rash of turnovers over the next 10 minutes; the Wildcats had committed eight and the Irish six with just over 15 minutes gone by in the contest. Notre Dame's Maggie Tamasitis ended the combined scoring drought off the free position at the 12:26 mark, only to have Kara Mupo tie the score at two with her own 8-meter goal one minute later.

Defenses reigned again for the next six minutes until Thornton unleashed a powerful and speedy dodge to get free, giving the hosts a 4-3 edge with 5:20 left before half. Following a Betsy Mastropieri tally for the Irish, Shannon Smith got on the board with a rocket sidearm shot at the 1:57 mark of the first half.

Fitzgerald set the halftime score at 5-3 when she found space inside the fan to receive a pass from Kat DeRonda, turned and fired past Notre Dame's Ellie Hilling for her 48th goal of the year.

Free position goals by Fitzgerald and ND's Margaret Smith soon after halftime kept NU's lead at two, but the Wildcats went ahead 7-4 when Hilling strayed too far from her crease and left a wide open look for Jessica Russo after a feed from Shannon Smith.

Smith's one-goal, two-assist day inched her to within one goal of tying NU's school goals record of 250 set in 2007 by Kristen Kjellman and also allowed Smith to pass Kjellman for second all-time at Northwestern with 351 career points.

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