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The Gators' surprising season came to a disappointing end with Saturday's 12-11 overtime loss to Northwestern.

Saturday May 17, 2014Gators' Road to Final Four Comes up a Win Short

The Gators' surprising season came to a disappointing end with Saturday's 12-11 overtime loss to Northwestern.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It was too beautiful a day for tears of defeat.

The air popped fresh, a steady breeze blew across Donald R. Dizney Stadium, and the sun sparkled overhead on a gorgeous May afternoon.

The conditions were not exactly what the Gators had hoped from Mother Nature -- they preferred the 90-degree heat and choking humidity from earlier in the week -- but still 180 degrees from the cold and mist on the shores of Lake Michigan two weeks ago when Florida and Northwestern last met on a lacrosse field.

The Gators won that day, hoisting the American Lacrosse Conference championship trophy before the sun retired for the evening. Amanda O' Leary's fifth team at UF, one expected to rebuild in 2014, rather reloaded and kept on winning.

The stakes were heightened Saturday in the teams' third meeting in a month: a berth in the Final Four.

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For 60 minutes the game flipped sides like a pair of kids on a seesaw. Florida made a run. Northwestern answered. The Gators struck back. The Wildcats refused to wilt. To settle the score, they needed six extra minutes.

"It was back and forth, back and forth," said Gators defender Krista Grabher. "But I think we remained poised and calm. The last shot was just a really nice shot."

As the game unfolded and went to overtime, a constant thought emerged: there will be tears.

There had to be. Both teams left everything on the field and the outcome -- win or lose -- would be an instant jolt for both clubs.

"When a Final Four trip is on the line, nobody is going to lay down,'' Northwestern coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said. "It was a great battle from both teams."

Finally, a resolution emerged when Northwestern's Kat DeRonda scored unassisted in overtime. The Gators' season was only 16 seconds away from expiring.

Florida won the final draw, got a shot off with 3.8 seconds left that missed wide right, and when Northwestern ran out the clock in a 12-11 victory, the emotions emptied.

The Wildcats celebrated a 10th consecutive trip to the Final Four -- first by way of a road win -- while Florida deflated and tried to regroup as its memorable season ended.

Few expected the Gators, ravaged by graduation a season ago, to get this far. But they made it and envisioned more when they took the field Saturday.

For much of the afternoon they seemed on the verge of making it happen, especially when they came out in the second half and scored four consecutive goals, the final one by Shannon Gilroy to give Florida an 8-5 lead with 20 minutes, 15 seconds left in regulation.

Still, the seven-time national champion Wildcats refused to go away quietly.

Northwestern responded by scoring five of the game's next six goals to take a 10-9 lead on Alyssa Leonard's third goal with 14:16 left.

But just like that, Sam Darcangelo and Lauren Lea scored to put the Gators back up 11-10 with 7:43 left. DeRonda scored the game's final two goals, one with 4:51 left in regulation and her overtime winner.

After DeRonda's goal tied the score 11-all, the Gators had a chance to get off a final shot in regulation but a costly turnover with 1:35 remaining disrupted their plans.

"We were going for the last shot,'' O'Leary said. "We have been successful with that in the past. We scored against Northwestern in the ALC championship going for the last shot. We had a good game plan. Northwestern came out and pressured us, and unfortunately we made a mistake."

With Leonard (seven draw controls) winning possession on a regular basis, it was Northwestern who played for the final shot in overtime.

The Wildcats held the ball for nearly all of the final three minutes.

"I just felt we didn't have an answer,'' O'Leary said of Northwestern's 16-11 advantage on draws. "Alyssa is the best in the country at that position and she showed it."

DeRonda eventually delivered her game-winner to end UF's quest for its second trip to the Final Four.

Gators goaltender Cara Canington, who replaced sophomore Mary-Sean Wilcox in goal and played the final 27 minutes, was asked to look ahead instead of back.

A fifth-year senior, Canington and fellow senior Grabher served as leaders on a young Florida team that featured 22 underclassmen on its 28-player roster.

"There is nothing but great things to come,'' Canington said. "They deserved to win. I feel bad that we couldn't do that for them today because they deserve the chance to experience the Final Four like Krista and Shannon and I have.

"We really wanted to do that for them. I know they will. I have great expectations. I can't wait to be in the stands and cheer for them."

Those words were spoken behind moist eyes and a long face. Following an intense matchup like Saturday's, there was no middle ground.

Northwestern rejoiced, the Gators hurt.

"We're very excited to have an opportunity to play another day,'' Amonte Hiller said.

O'Leary offered the opposite end of the spectrum.

"I'm really proud of our seniors. What they brought to the table -- and I told them in the locker room -- their leadership, their love, their caring, I'm sad for them because they gave so much to this program over the course of four years for Krista, five for Cara.

"I wish we could have done more and moved on. Unfortunately that didn't happen."

 

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