2023 Big East Women’s Lacrosse Tournament
#2 Marquette Golden Eagles (15-2, 5-1 Big East) vs #3 Connecticut Huskies (11-5, 4-2 Big East)
Season Series: Marquette won, 12-9, in Milwaukee
All Time Series: Connecticut leads 8-2
Merely declaring this game to be a Big East semifinals matchup between the #2 and #3 seed in the conference is ever so slightly misleading. This is an important game in the national picture of women’s lacrosse, both in terms of poll rankings and the NCAA tournament picture. This is a game between two teams ranked in the latest IWCLA/ILWomen top 25 poll, with Marquette coming in at #19, the best ranking in program history one week after entering the poll for the first time at #24, and Connecticut landing at #24 after the Golden Eagles vacated the spot.
As far as the NCAA tournament goes, USA Lacrosse Magazine had Marquette easily in the field as of Tuesday, while UConn is the best at-large team in the Last Four In grouping. It’s reasonable to think that the Huskies could survive a second loss to Marquette this season and still get into the 29 team field.... but it’s probably best for them if they don’t lose. If you’d like a more algorithmic projection of the NCAA tournament field, Lacrosse Reference had both Marquette and UConn as locks for the field as of Sunday morning. If you’re talking about it entirely in terms of RPI, at least through Sunday’s games, Marquette stands at #14 in the country, while UConn is two spots at #16. You’d like to think that two top 20 teams could get into a 29 team tournament with 14 at large bids, but again: It’s better to win one more game and make your case even more undeniable.
As for how these two teams matchup, I don’t know if this year’s regular season meeting provides us with a deep insight because to a certain extent, it was two different games. You can split that game in Milwaukee into two parts, right at about the 10 minute mark of the third quarter. That was 30 seconds after Shea Garcia scored her fourth goal of the game after posting a natural hat trick in the first quarter, and her latest goal left the Golden Eagles up 12-4 with 25 minutes to go. Marquette had outshot the Huskies 22-16 in the first half, and after the first five minutes following halftime, that stat stood at 26-21 Marquette.
Over the next 25 minutes, UConn outshot Marquette 15-8 and outscored the Golden Eagles 5-0. Now, is part of this because Marquette was up eight after scoring eight straight goals to take an 8-1 lead after 17 minutes had been played and the potent MU offense decided to be a little bit more patient and make sure they played solid lacrosse on both ends to prevent the Huskies from rolling back into that game? Yeah, maybe. Five of their eight shots down the stretch were on frame, so it’s not like Marquette didn’t have chances to put the ball in the net. UConn goalie Landyn White just made plays and that makes sense because she’s really good.
There’s the other part of this where Marquette’s defense deserves praise for what they did in the final 25 minutes. When you’re not scoring goals on the other end of the field and you’re preserving a lead against a top 25 ranked team, you’re doing something right when you only give up five goals in 25 minutes.... and even when that’s actually five goals in 20 minutes, given when Lauren Barry scored the first of the five. UConn was spraying shots all over the place in the third quarter, putting just four of their nine shots in the last 10 minutes of the quarter on frame, and MU goalie Brynna Nixon stopped half of those four. This is what I mean about the defense doing their job. Nixon made two saves on UConn’s five shots on goal and six total shots in the fourth quarter, and we can give the sophomore a little bit of a pass for two of the third and fourth quarter goals as they were while Marquette had a player on the sideline on a penalty.
So there’s a lot of good stuff as far as Marquette goes here, especially when you factor in Marquette’s defense holding UConn scoreless during that early eight goal run. But it’s that eight goal run that makes you wonder what will happen this second time around. If you look at Lacrosse Reference’s offensive and defensive efficiency metrics for both Marquette and Connecticut, you’ll see that these two teams are kind of mirror images of each other. #22 Offense and #44 Defense vs #23 Offense and #45 Defense. What happens when these two teams square off and the Golden Eagles don’t get to take a seven goal lead after 17 minutes? What changes when the Big East’s second best goals per game offense scores their second goal before the clock says 11:10 in the second quarter? What changes when Marquette can’t hold Kate Shaffer, one of three women in the Big East averaging a hat trick and one of two averaging more than four points a game, to absolutely nothing on four shots a second time?
Then again.... what happens if Marquette doesn’t try to play patiently for the final 25 minutes of the game? We’re talking about the only offense in the Big East to average more than 15 goals a game this season, and they only scored 12 against UConn in the regular season meeting. What happens when head coach Meredith Black figures out a way to unlock Mary Schumar and her 4.0 assist and 5.12 points per game averages for more than the two assists that she had against the Huskies in Milwaukee? The Golden Eagles proved that they can beat the Huskies by putting the clamps on them.... but don’t take that to mean that Marquette is worried about getting into a shootout with them a second time around.
Oh, and by the way: Marquette will be looking for their first ever postseason victory in this game. The Golden Eagles have reached the Big East tournament in three previous seasons — 2018, 2019, and 2022 — and they’ve come up on the short end of the stick in the semifinals each time. Black and her players have talked repeatedly this season about how losing 17-13 to Georgetown last May as the #2 seed in the tournament stuck in their craw all offseason long, and that they went about their business with a “that’s not happening again” attitude. Now it’s time to put their cards on the table and prove that it won’t.
The winner of this game advances to Sunday’s Big East championship game, where they will face the winner of the semifinal game between #1 Denver and #4 Villanova. That game will start at 11am Central time on Sunday, and FS2 will pick up the broadcast.