Caroline Bean is pictured holding her lacrosse stick up with another player in front of her.
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The Michigan women’s lacrosse team entered the NCAA Tournament with a poor track record on both sides of person-up situations and free position shots. In many of its late-season losses, opposing teams scored on most — if not all — of their extra-person opportunities and the Wolverines struggled on free position shots while allowing opponents to score. 

But in a season-ending loss to Northwestern in the second round of the tournament, Michigan turned that around. Despite strong play off of whistles, the Wolverines couldn’t gain enough possessions to create opportunities elsewhere and fell, 15-12.

“I think the offense executed when they needed to,” Michigan coach Hannah Nielsen said. “… when we had the ball on either end of the field we really did do a good job of executing but unfortunately, we just didn’t have it enough.”

In a loss to the Wildcats earlier this season, Northwestern scored all three times when a penalty by the Wolverines put them a person up. Sunday, Michigan held the Wildcats 2-for-3 in extra-person situations while going 3-for-4 themselves off of Northwestern’s yellow cards.

On free position shots, the difference was even more noticeable. The Wolverines converted at a 4-for-8 rate out of the free position while holding their opponents to just two goals on nine attempts. 

The defense held the Wildcats — who have scored at least 19 goals in four out of their previous six games — to only 15 goals and did so in many difficult situations. Graduate goalkeeper Arielle Weissman saved multiple free position shots and other difficult shots that sent her jumping, diving and contorting around the cage. And when the defense had to play down a person, they worked as a cohesive unit despite being outnumbered.

“We almost like playing man-down,” Weissman said. “It gives us confidence, we work the best we ever do together during that because you need to and it worked out today for us.”

Even after struggling with those situations earlier in the season, they played a crucial role when Michigan’s back was against the wall. After a scoreless first period that led to a five-goal deficit, it got on the board with a free position goal in the second period. About five minutes later, an extra-person goal made the score 7-3, then with nine seconds left in the half, another free position goal brought the Wolverines within three.

In the second half, Michigan scored three goals on extra-person opportunities, one of which also came out of the free position.

Six of the Wolverines’ 12 goals came while up a person, on a free position shot or both, while a seventh came in the second period when freshman attacker Jill Smith recovered a deflection on her own free position shot and slung the ball into the net for her second goal of the day. 

Michigan couldn’t earn enough possessions to win the game, but it played well where it had previously struggled. In a physical game with 64 total fouls and seven yellow cards, the Wolverines made their opportunities count and limited Northwestern’s successes. 

“We scored (in) different ways on all of the man-up plays that we had,” Nielsen said. “… I think that fills us with confidence.” 

Despite marking the end of Michigan’s season, its success in overcoming a weakness displayed the growth that drove it this deep into the postseason. Instead of being the Achilles heel that dragged them down, the Wolverines’ previous flaws became their biggest strengths.