Kaitlyn Mead sprints across the field, carrying the ball in her lacrosse stick as Maryland players follow close.
Despite its comeback, Michigan fell short against Northwestern. Anna Fuder/Daily.  Buy this photo.

When mounting a comeback, streamlining the game plan becomes paramount. As time dwindles down, and desperation grows, teams must claw their way back with the basics and leave the fancy stuff behind.

As basic as it can get, the first step of that comeback starts at the faceoff. Then, after gaining possession, teams simply see where things go.

In the Michigan women’s lacrosse team’s 15-12 second-round NCAA Tournament loss, getting past the first step proved fatal. The Wolverines (11-7 overall, 2-5 Big Ten) dropped 23 out of 29 faceoffs against No. 4 Northwestern (15-4, 6-2) in a game that continuously saw Michigan’s momentum stunted by draw control losses.

“I think that was the issue today,” Michigan coach Hannah Nielsen said. “Credit to Northwestern, their effort on the draw was sensational. …  (Jill) Girardi is great on the draw. No question, that’s their bread and butter.”

The first 13 seconds of the game told the tale of the tape. Catching a smooth draw control, Wildcat Attacker Lauren Gilbert raced into the offensive zone, darting past the Wolverines’ defense and netting Northwestern a 1-0 lead. 

The Wildcats exploited Michigan’s inability to win draw controls all day, yet never found as much success as they did in the first quarter. Northwestern won the first five faceoff opportunities of the match and converted each and every time, ending the first frame with a daunting 5-0 lead. The Wolverines’ evident lapses in the middle left them scrambling to stop the bleeding.

Those scrambles would continually fall on Michigan’s defense — none more than graduate goaltender Arielle Weissman, who faced 34 shots during the bout. Pressed to make save after save, Weissman delivered. Yet that situation forced the Wolverines to operate their offense out of the transition game, pitting them up against the suffocating Wildcats’ ride.

Without winning draws, the Wolverines relied on their defense to play more than perfect — a task too tall for any team.

“Credit to our defense as well,” Nielsen said. “They got us the ball back a lot and allowed us to score … But when you don’t get it from the middle, it makes it really, really difficult.”

After yet another draw control win by the Wildcats and a 7-1 lead in the second frame, Northwestern looked poised for a repeat of Friday’s blowout victory against Central Michigan.

Yet the Wolverines’ defense would not allow it.

During the final seven minutes of the first half, Michigan rallied to win two of its six draw controls of the day — both of which led to immediate goals on the offensive end. However, the team’s comeback came on the heels of excellent defensive play, as it forced two turnovers and entered the second half on a 4-1 run — overcoming losing three draw controls in the process.

As the third quarter commenced, the Wolverines’ midfield control slipped further out of their grasp. Michigan could not win a single faceoff in 15 minutes of play, and they gave the Wildcats nine free possessions from that ineffectiveness.

Nevertheless, Michigan paradoxically continued to close the gap, as four Northwestern turnovers in the first eight minutes of the second half allowed the Wolverines to pull within one goal for a score of 9-8. In effect, the Michigan defense created its own faceoff wins through opposition turnovers and saved shots.

“Defense was doing just what they needed to in the moment,” Weissman said. “They were giving them a lot physically and that was all I needed today.”

Yet the Wolverines couldn’t draw closer. A three goal flurry by the Wildcats — complemented by three draw controls — cemented Northwestern’s position in the driver’s seat with a 12-8 lead.

And although the Wildcats never fully pulled away, Michigan did not capture another strong chance as Northwestern’s draw control wins and time of possession kept the ball out of the Wolverines’ hands until the end of the match.

And as with any potential comeback, the first step is getting the ball in your hands.