Wildcats are tourney's true top team

The shot that shook the women's lacrosse world came off the stick of Princeton sophomore Katie Lewis-Lamonica, with just 2:14 left in the Tigers' first-round showdown with No. 2 seed Virginia. Princeton stopped two Virginia tries in the final minutes and held on for the win, 8-7.

With that shot, Princeton ended a three-game losing skid to Virginia and extended its streak of consecutive appearances in the NCAA quarterfinals to 16 years. And most importantly, the Tigers took out one of its biggest obstacles in the NCAA women's lacrosse tournament.

While Dartmouth, which now faces Princeton instead of last year's runner-up in Saturday's quarterfinal, is undoubtedly breathing easier, the truth is that the Cavaliers weren't the best team in the tournament. In fact, they weren't even the second-best team.

Those honors are reserved for No. 4 seed Northwestern and No. 1 seed Duke, in that order. The Blue Devils seemingly have everything; they can score at will and keep opponents from even putting shots on goal. The shots their opponents do get off have a fraction of a chance of going in -- the team's goalies, led by Megan Huether, sport a 37 percent goals against average. In Katie Chrest, the team has the 2005 Tewaaraton Trophy winner, lacrosse's version of the Heisman. A finalist again for this year's award, Crest already has won the ACC Player of the Year honors after breaking school records for career goals (211) and career points (281).

But Duke lacks the one thing the real No. 1 team in this tournament has in spades -- experience. The Blue Devils dropped two games to Virginia this season; by one goal in April and a decisive 13-8 contest in the ACC tournament final. In both games, the only advantage the Cavaliers had was that they knew how to win. Virginia had beaten the Blue Devils both times Duke reached the NCAA semifinals (1999, 2005). As good as the Blue Devils are -- and they are good -- they haven't proven that they can win in tight spots.

The true top team, Northwestern, has a title under its belt and revenge on its mind. On April 7, Duke ended Northwestern's 31-game winning streak with a 16-10 victory in Durham. The loss marked the Wildcats' only blemish on an otherwise perfect season. In 2005, Northwestern broke NCAA team single-season records in points (475), assists per game (9), total assists (158) and draw controls (318), and came in second in draw controls per game (15.14) and third in goals (317).

The Wildcats followed up their magical 2005 campaign with wins over Maryland, Notre Dame and North Carolina in 2006. They are averaging more than 16 goals per game, while keeping their opponents to a total nearly half that. And Northwestern's defense is so good that opponents are making just 14 percent of their free-position shots.

It's on offense where the Wildcats really shine. They are on pace to break last year's single-season records for both points and assists, a staggering feat considering that the second-place team set its record in 1983. Women's lacrosse has changed quite a bit in the past 23 years. In a sport in which speed is paramount, the Wildcats are winning with a solid offense that has learned to play together effectively.

That consistency can be attributed to a core group of players that has only improved after last season's perfect run. Junior Kristen Kjellman has increased her production in nearly every statistical category; her 65 goals, 90 points and 85 draw controls are team-bests. Kjellman's gaudy numbers in part can be attributed to the play of senior Lindsey Munday, who has dished out 47 assists and scored 41 goals. Senior Laura Glassanos and junior Aly Josephs, two key contributors last season, have combined for 83 goals and 160 points.

If Northwestern's performance against Stanford in the first round is any indication -- the Wildcats demolished the Cardinal, 17-9 -- it appears that the tournament selection committee's decision to seed the reigning champs behind Duke, Virginia (which lost to Richmond and North Carolina) and Georgetown (which lost to Duke, James Madison and Boston University) only motivated an already fiercely competitive group. Should the Wildcats get by North Carolina on Saturday in the quarterfinals, it would set up a rematch of that fateful April 7 game against the Blue Devils in the semifinals. Northwestern might enter that contest as the lower-ranked team, but certainly not the underdog.

This highly anticipated potential matchup would have been best saved for the final; instead, the winner of Duke-Northwestern (should both teams advance to the Final Four) will face the winner of the bottom half of the bracket, which looks like it could be anyone's to win. Saturday's quarterfinal games pit an up-and-down No. 3 seed Georgetown team against sixth-seeded Notre Dame, while Princeton travels to Dartmouth, which the Tigers lost to earlier this season, 15-5. Although Georgetown and Dartmouth enter the contests with the higher ranking, all four of these teams have been inconsistent throughout the season. Princeton's ability to sustain its momentum after its first-round win is unlikely. But in a year that saw George Mason make the men's basketball Final Four, the idea that Princeton -- a team just two years removed from a title-game loss to Virginia -- is out of its league is mistaken.

Princeton's bracket shake-up is an anomaly in lacrosse; both the men's and women's tournaments usually see all of the top seeds advance out of the first round. The women's championship usually consists of Maryland and Princeton or Virginia (the Terps have won nine titles in their 14 trips to the title game). It's hard to imagine a championship without any of those teams; the last time it happened, Penn State battled Harvard for the title in 1989.

A Dartmouth win on Saturday would break that 16-year streak and effectively begin a new era for women's lacrosse -- one with increased parity and possibly a team from Chicago taking back-to-back titles.

Lauren Reynolds is a college sports editor at ESPN.com. She can be reached at lauren.k.reynolds@espn3.com.