NU lacrosse pulls away in 2nd half

Alyssa Leonard dominated the faceoff circle, showing the skill that ranks her fourth all time in draw controls among Division I players.

Taylor Thornton took over the game whenever her team needed a big play, showing the skills that make her the best all-around player in women’s college lacrosse — no matter what the national player-of-the-year selection committee thinks.

That combination led second-seeded Northwestern to a 15-8 victory over Stanford in its NCAA tournament opener Sunday in Evanston.

The defending champion Wildcats (18-2) move on to the quarterfinals against Penn State on Saturday night in Evanston. The seventh-seeded Nittany Lions beat Massachusetts 12-9 Sunday. Northwestern has defeated Penn State 9-8 and 11-3 this season.

Leonard had three goals and eight draw controls — seven cleanly to herself — before leaving after a hard fall with 10 minutes left. She expected to be ready for practice Monday.

“We were simulating the other team in practice. We knew what to expect,” Leonard said about the Wildcats’ overwhelming advantage (18-6) on the draw.

With the outcome still in doubt, Thornton scored three times on stunning individual efforts and had a key assist. She also caused three of Stanford’s 14 turnovers.

Yet Stanford coach Amy Bokker gave Thornton grudging praise. Bokker is part of the committee that snubbed Thornton in picking five finalists for player of the year.

“I think she is an X factor for them,” Bokker said. “I think they have a lot of talented players. We do defend her. She had her spurts going and finished when she had the opportunity.”

Spurts? Thornton was a factor all over the field the entire game.

Her spin-o-rama goal gave the Wildcats a 3-2 lead. Then, after being pushed back twice by the defense, she drove to the net for the goal that made it 6-4 at the half.

In the second half, after Stanford cut it to 6-5, Thornton willed herself past the defense on a 20-yard run for her final goal. On the next possession, she sucked in a defender and made a perfect pass to Kelly Rich for an 8-5 lead. Two possessions later, Thornton caused the turnover that sparked the five-goal Wildcats run to put the game away.

“I am confident every person on attack is a threat,” she said. “I don’t ever feel like I need to do this, I have to carry the team.”

But when it needed her most, she did.

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