Florida prepares for final 'chess match' against Northwestern

Florida coach Amanda O'Leary, center, has guided the Gators to two previous wins over Northwestern this season heading into Saturday's clash in the NCAA tournament quarterfinals. This is the first time the two rivals have met in the NCAA postseason.

Brad McClenny/Staff photographer
Published: Saturday, May 17, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, May 16, 2014 at 7:30 p.m.

When No. 4 seed Florida meets No. 5 seed Northwestern on Saturday in NCAA tournament quarterfinal action, it will be the latest edition of what has developed into one of the best rivalries in college women's lacrosse.

The Gators (18-2) and seven-time NCAA champion Wildcats (13-6) will tangle for the third time this season — all within less than a month — when they square off at Donald R. Dizney Stadium at 2 p.m.

A berth in the semifinals of next weekend's NCAA Championship in Towson, Md., awaits the winner.

“It's kind of like a chess match,” UF coach Amanda O'Leary said. “They have a tremendous coaching staff, and they are just so athletic. They match up really well with us.

“This is a whole new game. The two games before this mean nothing. It's win and advance or lose and go home, so at this point it's just making sure we're taking care of the little things and the details that we need to take care of.”

The two American Lacrosse Conference foes dominated the league, which recently disbanded following this year's ALC Tournament as four of the seven members, including Northwestern, are moving to the new Big Ten Conference.

The Wildcats won or shared eight of the 13 ALC regular-season titles awarded from 2002-2014, while UF, which joined the league as a first-year program in 2010, won the last four in a row, three of them outright.

In addition, the two combined to win all eight ALC Tournament titles (2007-14), six by Northwestern and two by Florida (2012, 2014).

“It's just been such a tremendous rivalry, and we've won some and we've lost some against them,” O'Leary said. “It is rather fitting that this game will be the last and they are a conference foe, so it is an interesting matchup and it will be our third time playing them this season, which is also a challenge.”

UF owns a pair of one-goal wins this year — a 13-12, regular-season win Apr. 19 and a 9-8 victory in the ALC Tournament final May 4. Both victories came at Northwestern.

This time, UF is at home where the Gators, who lead the all-time series 6-3, have won 29 straight games.

“I think that's going to be huge for us because we thrive at home,” junior midfielder Nora Barry said. “We play really well here and we're comfortable here. That's a huge benefit for us, and it's probably going to be a hot day, so we're hoping everything works in our favor.”

The Gators, who are on a 10-game winning streak, have only advanced past this stage once, that coming in 2012 when they hosted quarterfinal action for the first and only other time.

“We're preparing for a kind of different Northwestern team,” O'Leary said. “They've always come in and have a new game plan each and every time we've played them, so we're starting fresh as if we've never played them before. It's a tough go, but I feel like our team is up for that challenge, and we're looking forward to it.”

Northwestern is coming off an 11-8, second-round win over No. 23 Louisville last Sunday, while UF eliminated No. 20 Denver, 19-9, despite weather delays totaling more than six hours.

Saturday's meeting marks the first time the two rivals have met in NCAA tournament play.

“There's a lot of pressure, especially because it's a home game against a very difficult team,” said sophomore goalkeeper Mary-Sean Wilcox, who is unbeaten (10-0) as a starter this season. “We've played them twice already, and they were two of the most insane games we've played this season. I think it just makes us more prepared, and we are going to work even harder to come out with a win again.”

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