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Saturday, March 25, 2023

There’s a reason why Kitty Cullen didn’t care about the last 15 seconds.

The No. 6 Gators were about to defeat No. 2 Northwestern 13-11, locking up the top seed in the American Lacrosse Conference Tournament in front of a season-high crowd of 1,518, and she was dead set on sprinting down to the south goal to celebrate with the goalie who made it possible.

As the final buzzer rang, Cullen was quickly joined by her teammates in a mass of screams, outstretched arms and flying lacrosse sticks.

“It’s just indescribable. Last year we were down 14-0 at half and now we just beat them,” said Cullen, who scored a game-high six goals. “It just shows how much we’ve matured in the last year.”

The end result was a stark turnaround from the position the Gators (13-1, 4-0 ALC) were in against the Wildcats (12-1, 2-1 ALC) only 3:34 beforehand.

Down two players for the game’s final minutes due to yellow cards, goalie Mikey Meagher had every right to crumble down the stretch. She was outgunned defensively, her team had once again been dominated draw control (17-9), and the Gators’ back line was giving up free-position shot opportunities on nearly every NU possession.

“I feel like my team played fantastic, the defense as well,” said Meagher, who had 10 saves on the night. “They never really put me in a bad position, and they held their own. Mistakes are going to happen, and then that’s when I have to be there to clean them up.”

With two saves in the last 30 seconds, including one off a free-position shot, the sophomore held Northwestern’s offense, including NCAA points leader Shannon Smith, who scored her final goal with 6:37 left in the game.

That’s when Cullen scored one of her NCAA-best 67 goals to close the game for Florida.

With 5:35 left, Cullen beat a Wildcats defender outside the left 12-meter arc with a stop-and-go move. Her acceleration was so sudden it caught the rest of the defense off guard. The lone Northwestern player left between Cullen and the goal slipped, leaving goalie Brianne LoManto out to dry against the country’s leader in goals.

“The best defenders I go against are the people I go against every day, whether they’re the girls who are on the field or subbing in the game,” Cullen said. “I owe everything to them because of the way they push me in practice.”

The goal ended a 3-0 Wildcats run after two free position shots and an unassisted goal by Smith.

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Florida was outscored in the second half for the fourth time in five games. After UF took a 9-4 lead into the break, Northwestern outscored the Gators 7-4 over the final 30 minutes, attempting to preserve its 38-game winning streak in regular-season ALC play.

“What I’m most proud about this team is that we made some bad passes and bad decisions down the stretch with our shots, but I heard three people say, ‘Don’t worry about it; I’ve got your back,’” UF coach Amanda O’Leary said.

While O’Leary doesn’t like to see the trend develop on her young team, it’s a pattern that has yet to hurt the Gators.

“This is the best [team] I’ve ever coached, top to bottom,” O’Leary said. “I’ve had some great players at Yale and had some great teams at Yale but this … is the most talented group I’ve ever worked with.”

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