Throughout the season, the Michigan women’s lacrosse team has relied on its defense to anchor it. But Friday, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the defense did even more.
Not only did the Wolverines have one of their strongest defensive performances of the past few months, but that defense led to their best offensive production since mid-March. On the back of a career-high 17 saves from graduate goalkeeper Arielle Weissman, the defense played an integral part in their victory over Notre Dame.
“The defense has been the backbone all year long,” Michigan coach Hannah Nielsen said. “ … The confidence that the defense gives us is massive and it’s been there all year long and it was there again tonight.”
That confidence, as well as transition play, is part of what led to an offensive performance with six Wolverines scoring multiple goals.
The first goal of the game, just over two minutes in, came after Michigan forced a turnover. That success continued all game, as it used goals after turnovers, ground ball pickups and defensive stops to hold the Fighting Irish to their fewest goals in over a month while producing offensively.
After a Weissman save a few minutes later, a defensive clear led to another possession resulting in a goal for the Wolverines. And this would happen again and again.
But above those consistent situational victories, they dominated the transition game.
At the start of the third period, senior defender Morgan Whitaker caused a turnover, picked up the ground ball and carried it down most of the field — outrunning the majority of the Notre Dame team — before passing it off to fifth-year senior attacker Caitlin Muir, who scored on a one-on-one against the Irish goalkeeper. A nearly identical play took place five minutes later as senior midfielder Kaitlyn Mead recovered the ball off a Weissman save and took it down the field, connecting with Muir for her second goal of the game.
Beyond simply creating offensive opportunities, knowing that the defense was playing at its best also gave the offense more confidence to take more difficult shots.
“It just gives you confidence to do what you want to do on the other end,” Muir said. “Take shots, take risks, because you know that they’re not getting the ball past Arielle (Weissman) … and she’s such a leader down there that you just want to play well for her.”
The defense had its work cut out for it in stopping the Notre Dame offense, a talented unit with two players averaging more than three goals a game. But Michigan held them both to tame production, with midfielder Kasey Choma scoring just two goals on 10 shots and attacker Madison Ahern only scoring once.
The Wolverines’ defense played its best, keeping shots from getting to Weissman and giving her easier saves. But it didn’t start out that way thanks to frequent fouls. The Irish’s first two goals came on free-position shots after Michigan fouls, but after starting 2-for-2 out of the free position, Notre Dame went 0-for-7 for the rest of the game.
Weissman’s efforts in the cage were a significant contributing factor to that. Save after save, she stopped the Irish from scoring on opportunities they normally would capitalize on.
“I don’t think you can put into words what 17 saves means,” Nielsen said. “… I don’t think I’ve seen (Weissman) play any better than that. Super proud of her and again, when you’ve got a goalie doing that, it just gives confidence to everyone on the team.”
In Friday’s game, the Wolverines were firing on all cylinders for the first time in a while. If the defense continues to play so dominantly and the offense continues to utilize that momentum, they could produce yet another upset come Sunday.