This was as good as it gets.
Two high-ranked, highly skilled women's lacrosse teams playing a fast and physical style in a game with three lead changes and seven ties.
Highlight-reel goals, some by players turning into whirligigs. Play-of-the-day assists. Huge saves. Explosions of scoring. Stretches of clamp-down defense. A perfectly executed stall to preserve a one-goal lead for the final four minutes.
It was a worthy rematch of last year's tense NCAA championship game, when Northwestern had beaten Syracuse by two goals for its seventh title in eight seasons.
The No. 4 Wildcats did it again, rallying from three- and two-goal deficits to win their 11th straight over No. 5 Syracuse 13-12 Saturday at Lakeside Field in Evanston.
"They have that belief they are going to win every game, and that is the difference at the end," Syracuse coach Gary Gait said. "We made some mental mistakes when we needed to make some big plays. That's how you win and lose these big games."
Northwestern led for just 12 minutes altogether, never by more than a goal. Alyssa Leonard, who had struggled most of the day as a draw control specialist, broke a 12-12 tie when she converted a laser pass from Amanda Macaluso with 6 minutes, 9 seconds to play.
Senior Ali Cassera had her single-game high of five goals for Northwestern (9-1), while sophomore goalie Bridget Bianco made eight saves, two on free position (penalty) shots in the first half.
Bianco stopped one with her foot, another by "heading it out like a soccer ball," a move that broke her helmet. In the second half, she dropped in time to get the shaft of her stick on a run-of-play low shot stellar Syracuse freshman Kayla Treanor.
"Definitely my biggest game," said Bianco, a first-year starter. "Rematch of the national championship, two very good teams. I tried to keep myself calm most of the time, but it's really hard not to be pumped up."
That the game was aired on the Big Ten Network should pump interest in the sport, so high was the quality of the play.
"Both teams showcased their athleticism, passion for the game and skill," Wildcat coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said.
Gait was less impressed by that than by what he clearly believed was the dubious quality of the officiating. The Orange (5-3) were called for 32 fouls to Northwestern's nine, although Syracuse had more free position shots (4-3).
"I thought we did what we needed to," Gait said. "Unfortunately, we kept getting called (for fouls) going for loose balls. The possession kept going to them in the second half when they needed it."
But Syracuse had what should have been a huge advantage in possession by winning 20 of the first 26 draws. After taking an early 4-1 lead, it had chances to take total command but squandered many possessions with their 14 turnovers, a lot unforced.
And then Leonard found her mojo again, winning the final three draws of a game that had a little bit of everything and was so compelling the highlight reel might last as long as a feature film.
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