No. 2 'Cats Pound Penn State and Punch Ticket to Philadelphia

EVANSTON, Ill. -- By working its way to a 5-0 lead and holding its opponent without a shot for the first 17 minutes of the game, No. 2 Northwestern set the tone for what turned into a convincing 15-7 win over No. 7 Penn State in the NCAA quarterfinals in front of over 1,100 fans Saturday night.

Northwestern, which led 13-3 at the half and by as many as 12 in the second half, earned a spot in the tournament's national semifinals for a remarkable ninth consecutive season, setting the stage for a rematch with one of the teams responsible for NU's two losses in 2013 -- third-ranked North Carolina.

"I think down the stretch the girls have been really focused, and it takes a lot of focus to be able to put a team away," Amonte Hiller said after winning her 34th career NCAA Tournament game. "You have them on the ropes, you got to get that knockout punch and I think earlier in the year we lacked the focus to be able to get over the hump. Every single player since our loss to Florida has been really committed, and that's the difference, that level of focus."

The 'Cats improved to 19-0 all-time in NCAA Tournament home games under Kelly Amonte Hiller and extended their current winning streak in tournament play to 10 in a row dating back to 2011.

"I think people think it's automatic that we're going to go to the (semifinals), but it's very hard to get there," Amonte Hiller said. "With the expansion of the (NCAA Women's Lacrosse) Tournament, there were so many great teams in the Tournament and to be one of those four teams left is an honor."

Northwestern and Penn State were meeting for an unprecedented third time this season, but Saturday's quarterfinal affair much more closely resembled the teams' regular-season outcome than their American Lacrosse Conference Tournament tilt that required overtime to decide a winner. The Nittany Lions, who managed only three goals and 10 shots against the Wildcats back on April 5, were limited to three first-half goals and 16 total shots for the evening on Saturday.

Nine total Wildcats found the back of the net in the quarterfinal victory, led by junior Alyssa Leonard's career-high-tying four as well as a hat trick by senior Erin Fitzgerald.

Senior Taylor Thornton added one goal and one assist while controlling play in the midfield to the tune of five ground balls and five draw controls. Thornton's big evening moved her into a tie for second on the school's career ground balls record with 177 -- just six shy of matching Christy Finch's program record -- and into a tie for sixth on the career draw controls list (198).

As usual, Thornton's partner in the midfield was fellow senior Gabriella Flibotte, who racked up four ground balls and four draw controls and matching Thornton's two caused turnovers.

Following a familiar formula for success, Northwestern cruised on the draw control circle in the first half, winning 13 of 17 before the halftime break. That dominance, coupled with a defensive effort that caused turnovers early and often, allowed NU to overwhelmingly control possession in the early going. The Wildcats held a 2-0 lead 10 minutes in thanks to 8-meter goals by Fitzgerald and Ali Cassera and made it 3-0 when a Thornton shot was deflected by a Penn State defender past the Lions' goalkeeper, Thornton's 28th goal of the year.

Just past the halfway mark of the opening 30 minutes, Northwestern ran its offense to perfection and extended its lead to four whenBeatrice Conley finished a good look by junior Kate Macdonald. Less than two minutes later it was Thornton setting up Kelly Rich, and a stunned Penn State team found itself trailing, 5-0.

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