Florida lacrosse wins 2014 ALC Tournament, gets No. 4 seed in NCAA Tournament

@GatorZoneLAX

Florida took down Northwestern for the second time this season on Sunday. But for the Gators to make the Final Four, they might have to beat the Wildcats for a third time.

For Florida lacrosse, the good news came first on Sunday. And the good news about the bad news that came later is that the good news that came first also followed bad news. (You're still following? Good.)

At halftime of the 2014 American Lacrosse Conference tournament final, the #FLax folks needed a major comeback. Northwestern dominated the first half of the teams' second meeting in 2014, with stud attack Alyssa Leonard, the sport's all-time leader in draw controls, helping the Wildcats grab seven draws. That fueled an attack that turned an early 2-2 tie — with both Northwestern goals coming with a Gator in the penalty box, and both Florida goals coming at full strength — into a 7-2 halftime deficit for the Gators.

Florida wasn't about going to go down to Northwestern in the final ALC Tournament ever without at least putting up a fight.

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The ALC is likely to disband after 2014, with many of its constituent teams fleeing for a more geographically sensible conference: Michigan, Northwestern, Ohio State, and Penn State will join the Big Ten's newly-formed women's lacrosse league, which will add newly-minted ACC members Maryland and Rutgers to the four Big Ten schools that played in the 2014 ALC. Johns Hopkins is untethering itself, and choosing to play as an independent. And Florida and Vanderbilt, once set to be joined in the ALC by fellow SEC school South Carolina, are left as the only two 2014 ALC members who would return for a 2015 ALC — so they're bolting for the Big East, per Inside Lacrosse, as peachy rex notes in the comments.

While that's not as sad as many, many other casualties of the sweeping conference realigment that has rippled through collegiate athletics in the 21st century, it does rob women's lacrosse of one of its finest showcases: The Florida-Northwestern rivalry.

Prior to Florida's lacrosse program's existence, Northwestern ruled the sport — and the ALC — in a manner similar to some of the best dynasties in college sports. After restarting their program in 2002, the Wildcats won five straight national titles from 2005 to 2009, going 106-3 over those five seasons, then added two more titles in 2011 and 2012 after being upset in the 2010 NCAA Tournament final.

But since starting its program in 2010, Florida has challenged Northwestern's reign as the ALC's leviathan, and claimed crowns of its own. The 2010 Gators took a 19-5 braining at the Wildcats' hands in Evanston, but the 2011 Gators scored a win over Northwestern that was unequivocally the biggest win in program history1, one that helped the Gators win the ALC's regular season championship. Northwestern got revenge in the 2011 ALC Tournament final, but the rivalry between the game's queens regnant and nascent challenger to the throne was born on that April day in Gainesville.

It's been a seesawing series since. Northwestern won two of the first three meetings, but Florida ran off three straight wins over the Wildcats in 2012 and 2013, culminating in a a 22-4 beatdown on Senior Day in 2013. Then Northwestern repaid that embarrassment with an 8-3 victory over the Gators in the 2013 ALC Tournament final, in a game in which Florida took just nine shots to the Wildcats' 24, keeping the lifetime series between the two teams at a respectable Florida 4, Northwestern 3.

Entering Sunday, 2014 had already brought one thriller between the two teams in Evanston. Florida built an 11-5 lead midway through the second half at Northwestern on April 19 despite getting just one goal from Tewaaraton Award finalist Shannon Gilroy, only to have Northwestern furiously rally from that six-goal deficit over the final 17:25 of play, outscoring Florida 7-2 over the game's next 15 minutes to pull within a goal. But the Gators staved off a collapse with strong defense that kept the frantic final two minutes scoreless, and got lucky on a crease violation that nulled the game-tying goal with 16 seconds left, pulling off a 13-12 escape.

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Sunday's game was better than any before it.

This time, it was Florida that faced a deficit in Evanston, trailing by that 7-2 margin at the half after being outshot 13-7 and struggling with Leonard's draw prowess. The Gators also couldn't count on Gilroy to be their savior, as Northwestern's defense neutralized the nation's leading goal-scorer again, keeping her off the board in the first half.

So they got to work in the second half, and plugged away. Sammi Burgess scored the 33rd goal of her stellar freshman campaign just 25 seconds into the second half, and Lauren Lea followed with the 11th goal of her season two minutes later, slashing Northwestern's lead to 7-4. The Wildcats' Kara Mupo extended the lead to 8-4 just two minutes after Lea's goal, but Florida responded with a 4-0 stretch over the next 16 minutes that consisteted of Gilroy's lone score on the day, a second Lea tally, and goals from Devon Schneider and Mollie Stevens and tied the game at 8-8 with 9:50 to go.

With 10 minutes left in the ALC Tournament final, and, in theory, the life of the American Lacrosse Conference, the two titans of the league were on level pegging.

With 32 seconds to go, Nora Barry settled this year's battle for control of the conference with a game-winning goal.

Florida preserved that first lead of the afternoon for its 9-8 victory, finishing the largest comeback in school history and its second sweep of the ALC regular season and tournament titles.

It's impossible for Florida to claim full ownership of the ALC throne, not when Northwestern swept the regular season and tournament titles from 2007 to 2010. But Florida, not Northwestern, has won at least a share of the last four regular season titles, and two of the last four tournaments, and Florida, not Northwestern, has been undefeated in ALC play in three of those regular seasons.

They may not own the throne, but the Gators sit on it — and given that the conference likely won't exist beyond this year, Florida's regicide in the ALC will forever stand as one of the most remarkable stories in Florida athletics.

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But the Gators aren't done with Northwestern just yet.

Florida was awarded the No. 4 seed for the 2014 NCAA Lacrosse Championship on Sunday night, a bit of a slap in the face for the only program outside of No. 1 seed Maryland to finish the 2014 regular season with 15 wins, seven road wins, and a perfect home record. The ALC is partly to blame: The ACC was home to No. 1 seed Maryland, No. 2 seed Syracuse, and No. 3 seed North Carolina, which swept the top three of the RPI, and those teams got RPI boosts from No. 6 seed Virginia, No. 7 seed Boston College, and No. 8 seed Notre Dame, while the ALC produced just one other national seed.

And Florida doesn't have much room to complain about being behind Maryland and Syracuse, the only teams as decorated as these Gators were, and Florida's 20-8 loss at North Carolina in its season opener was probably the tiebreaker between the two teams for the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds.

But that was a road game that happened long before this young Florida team gelled, and UNC has since lost to the Northwestern team Florida swept, lost twice to Syracuse, and lost to middling Duke. The Tar Heels have this season's only defeat of over Maryland, a 17-15 win in a barn-burner in Chapel Hill, but it's hard for me to countenance Florida getting the No. 4 seed behind the No. 3 Heels when the Gators had half as many losses, and two road wins over a team that beat North Carolina at the same venue.

And it's especially hard to countenance that when one considers the entire bracket, and the Gators' No. 5 seed booby prize: Northwestern.

Florida will begin its NCAA Championship campaign on May 11, playing the winner of a first round game between Denver and Jacksonville on May 9, but the Gators are set up for a third showdown with Northwestern on May 18 if seeds hold. That would be one hell of a third round game: Florida would have to beat Northwestern for a third time this season, something no team has ever done in Northwestern's history, to advance to the Final Four, while Northwestern would have to beat Florida in their third meeting (and in Gainesville) to avoid failing to make the Final Four for the first time since 2004.

It's also royally unfair to both teams. Why penalize Florida with Northwestern for beating up on Northwestern? Why reward Northwestern's rigorous scheduling outside the ALC with a No. 5 seed, then set the Wildcats up to play Florida? Why reward North Carolina with a better seed than Florida, and pair the Heels with a 10-8 team they defeated on the road, when UNC lost to a team Florida beat twice, and didn't even play for the ACC title?

Given its recent level of play, conference championships, and strength of schedule, Florida deserved to at least be either the No. 3 seed (and thus paired with the No. 2 seed, not No. 1 Maryland, for a potential Final Four matchup) or not be forced to see Northwestern again until a Final Four game. It got neither.

Whatever, the women of Florida lacrosse will say. They've dealt with tougher things in the program's short history, like a 7-2 deficit at halftime on their archrival's home field or affiliation with a conference ruled by the sport's lone superpower, and overcome those adversities.

They might just overcome this one, too.

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  1. This was the seventh post I ever wrote at Alligator Army.

  2. This year in women's lacrosse played out much like many recent college football seasons have, with the ACC filling the role of the SEC. All the "best" teams were in the ACC

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