It was shaping up to be a back-and-forth matchup between two closely-ranked teams as the No. 13 Michigan women’s lacrosse team (9-4 overall) hosted No. 17 Southern California (8-2) Sunday afternoon. But then it wasn’t.
After senior midfielder Erin Garvey scored just 20 seconds into the game, the Trojans answered. The Wolverines again took the lead but USC quickly responded. Two Michigan goals were answered by one from the Trojans, and the first period ended with the Wolverines up one in a seemingly tight game.
But then Michigan’s defense, which allows the fifth-fewest goals in the country, uncharacteristically faltered. It couldn’t keep up with USC’s strong shooting effort and the offense sputtered as the Trojans defeated the Wolverines, 14-10.
As Michigan struggled to produce offensively, their defense faced long and challenging USC possessions and couldn’t clear the ball out of their territory. They allowed four goals in each of the second and third periods.
The Wolverines scored just once in both the second and third periods, with both goals ending scoring droughts of over 15 minutes. But it was lapses in Michigan’s typically-strong defense, including an uncharacteristically weak showing from graduate goaltender Arielle Weissman, that stood out.
“We were letting shooters get on top of (Weissman and) it’s hard to save a ball when there’s no defense in front of you either,” Michigan coach Hannah Nielsen said. “(It was) a little bit of a letdown from that defensive unit today, which has been truly our backbone all year.”
Weissman entered the game ranked second in the Big Ten with a season save percentage of .521. But she struggled Sunday, allowing 10 goals on 14 shots for a save percentage of only .286 behind a defense that wasn’t able to help her out as much as it normally does. And with the Wolverines down by five 10 minutes into the second half, Weissman was replaced in the net by freshman Erin O’Grady.
At the very end of the third period, though, things started to look a little bit brighter for Michigan.
Senior attacker Kaley Thompson scored on a free position shot with 39 seconds left in the third period, making it an 11-6 game. Her goal was the Wolverines’ first since 4:45 in the second period, a span in which the Trojans had scored six unanswered.
Despite scoring only twice after the seven-and-a-half minute mark in the first period and allowing 10 USC goals during that time, Michigan continued to fight.
Down 12-6 with 12:30 to play, the Wolverines woke up, scoring twice in just over four minutes and getting within four goals of the Trojans. As Michigan’s offense came alive, so too did the defense. With the ball staying in USC territory for significant lengths of time, the Wolverines’ defenders got a reprieve from the long Trojan offensive possessions that had characterized the previous two periods, and O’Grady made two saves on tough shots.
“When we played with our backs against the wall in the fourth quarter, people started going hard and scoring, it looked great,” Nielsen said. “And that’s the mentality they need to play with in quarters one, two and three.”
With four minutes left, the teams alternated goals twice, with USC striking first both times. Michigan’s late-game surge wasn’t enough, and the Wolverines wound up losing by four.
Despite successfully cutting into the Trojans’ lead by the end of the game, the loss was still disappointing.
“You can’t take two quarters off,” Nielsen said. “That’s the frustrating bit. Quarters one and four were great. But two and three, we slipped up and we’ve got to figure out why and what happened.”