Missing two starters against Colonial League South Division leader Notre Dame (Green Pond), undefeated Northwestern faced its biggest test of the season Tuesday night.
The Lady Tigers got the effort they needed from inexperienced players as well as some of their more seasoned veterans in beating the Crusaders, 54-44.
"We said 'Next girl up,'" said Northwestern head coach Chris Deutsch. "It's a total team effort tonight, from the seniors right on down.
"In a way it was probably our best win of the year. I'm just so proud of the girls because they found a way again."
The host Tigers (17-0 overall, 11-0 Colonial League) played without junior center Trista Cunningham and sophomore guard/forwardSarah Segan, two second-year starters. Freshman Erika Thomas and sophomore Lauren Anderson joined the starting line up in their place.
Northwestern's win, combined with Southern Lehigh's defeat of Bangor, gives the Lady Tigers at two-game lead for the top spot in the league playoffs with five games left.
Northwestern didn't look like a team without two key players, building an 11-point lead in the first half. The Crusaders (13-3, 9-2) fought back and had it down to just two points early in the fourth quarter before the Tigers sealed the game with an 11-0 run.
Senior forward Kaleen Suter hit two lay ups in a row to push her team's lead up to 44-38 with 3:24 left. After a Sabrina Mertz three-point play, Suter and Sara Jones each added a pair of free throws to finish off the run and push the lead up to 51-38 with :49 seconds left in the game.
"That was the best game Kaleen Suter played all year," Deutsch said. "She played possessed. She stepped up huge."
Suter, who usually plays side by side with Cunningham under the basket, scored 11 points while pulling down 12 rebounds.
"Without Trista (Cunnigham) underneath and Segan for ball handling, I felt a lot more pressure to fill their spots," said Suter. "It was definitely a group effort. All the younger girls were playing their part and trying their hardest."
After battling back throughout the third quarter, the Crusaders had two chances to tie before Suter's two key buckets.
"We just weren't able to get over that hump," said Crusader head coach Josh Kopp. "We had it 40-38 with possession two times and we didn't handle the ball the way we wanted to. I think we needed, psychologically, to get it to an even game to prove we fought all the way back and we just didn't get to that point."
Other than a brief deficit at the outset of the game, the Tigers led the whole way. They turned a 4-0 deficit into a 9-7 lead within the game's first five minutes.
The Crusaders stuggled shooting in the face of Northwestern's defense, going 5 for 20 from the field in the first half and 1 for 10 from three-point range.
When they heated up from outside in the third quarter (5 for 8), they closed the gap to just three points heading into the fourth quarter, 38-35.
"They were hitting a lot of shots," said Suter. "We got a little bit nervous, but we realized we had to step it up and play some better defense, hit some shots on our end."
Shannon Moran had three of her four three-pointers in the third quarter and led Notre Dame with 18 points.
Lexi McGivern also hit a pair of treys in the third quarter, but was limited to 10 points by Mertz's defense. McGivern, a returning All Colonial League player, went 3 for 14 from the field and 2 for 9 from beyond the arch.
Thomas, the freshman who got her first start, contributed seven points and pulled down all six of her rebounds in the second half.
"Sara Jones and Kaleen Suter were a big part of keeping my head in the game," said Thomas. "They're great leaders and they really help me. They do it for everyone."
Jones, who recently became Northwestern's all-time leading scorer, poured in a team-high 18 points along with eight rebounds. Mertz had 16 points for the Tigers.
Considering what his team was up against, playing without Cunningham and Segan against one of the league's top teams, Deutsch said it was one of the most satisfying wins of his coaching career, which includes the past nine years with the girls program as well as another eight years as a boys assistant.
"This is as good as it gets," he said.
Cunningham could return from a high ankle sprain within a week and Segan's return is questionable pending an MRI on her knee.
McGivern 3-2-2-10, Romich 0-0-0-0, S. Cabone 0-3-4-3, Altmire 3-0-0-6, Moran 6-2-3-18, Gorman 1-4-7-6, L. Cabone 0-1-2-1, McMullan 0-0-2-0. TOTALS: 13-12-20-44.
Mertz 4-7-7-16, Landrigan 0-0-0-0, Day 0-0-0-0, Jones 5-7-8-17, Suter 4-2-2-11, Koenig 0-1-2-1, Thomas 3-1-2-7, Anderson 1-0-0-2. TOTALS: 17-18-21-54.
Notre Dame 7 7 21 9 – 44
Northwestern 14 11 13 16 – 54
Three-pointers: ND – Moran 4, McGivern 2; NW – Mertz 1, Suter 1.