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Northwestern thrilled after holding onto late lead

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Northwestern thrilled after holding onto late lead

EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) The Northwestern Wildcats hope they can finally move on from their fourth-quarter struggles.

After holding on for a 23-20 victory over Michigan State on Saturday, the Wildcats are very much in the mix for a quality bowl bid at the end of the season.

Northwestern (8-3, 4-3 Big Ten) blew fourth-quarter leads in losses to Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan, so the Wildcats had reason to be anxious when Michigan State took over at its own 20-yard line with 1:29 remaining and needing a field goal to tie.

But Andrew Maxwell threw four straight incompletions, enabling Northwestern to close out the victory. The win came a week after an excruciating loss in overtime to Michigan after the Wildcats had lost the lead in the final seconds of regulation.

``We felt a little crushed last week but with a win this week we're hoping we can latch onto that momentum and get two more wins,'' tight end Dan Vitale said. ``Personally, I'm going to keep doing what I've been doing and I think good things are going to happen. We're getting more and more confidence each game.''

Now Northwestern can state its case even further to bowl representatives next weekend against Illinois in the regular-season finale. Among Big Ten teams, only Ohio State and Nebraska have more overall victories than Northwestern - and the Buckeyes are ineligible for postseason play.

Northwestern has a chance to play in a January bowl for the third time in four seasons.

``When you've had some tough defeats like we've had, you've got to shut out the noise and the negativity,'' coach Pat Fitzgerald said. ``With the 24-hour news cycle and social media, it's tough on our guys; it's hard as it's ever been. But we talked about that.''

The Wildcats held firm after their loss to Michigan, in which they allowed a 53-yard pass in the final seconds of the regulation that set up the Wolverines' tying field goal. Against the Spartans, Jeff Budzien kicked a 27-yard field goal with 7:30 remaining to give Northwestern a 23-20 lead.

Michigan State's final chance came in the last couple minutes. Fitzgerald was willing to punt to the Spartans (5-6, 2-5) on fourth-and-1 from the Northwestern 49.

The Wildcats' defense rewarded the coach for his confidence.

``To see the way that the program has responded I think is a terrific credit to our players. They've stayed the course,'' Fitzgerald said. ``We're going to set things out for them as far as a vision and a belief system and a value system. But it takes them to own it, it takes them to manage it every day, and it takes them to hold each other accountable to the Wildcat way, and they've done that.''

Michigan State enjoyed its own renaissance in 2010 and 2011, but this year has been rough. After beginning the season with Rose Bowl aspirations, the Spartans now need to win at Minnesota next weekend just to become bowl eligible.

All seven of Michigan State's conference games this year have been decided by four points or fewer. They'll need a win in the last one, no matter what the margin.

``You can only live in the present and the future,'' Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said. ``We have to get ready for Minnesota and are in a situation to be playing for a bowl game. Credit Northwestern for making plays. I think they played extremely hard and they always do.''

The Wildcats don't need to worry about making a bowl - but every additional victory helps their case for moving up in the pecking order.

``We had a big pit in our stomach, a lot of pain in our stomach after last week,'' Vitale said. ``I think we released a lot of demons this game and it felt great to win.''

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Mystics win fourth straight, beat Sky 81-74

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USA Today Sports Images

Mystics win fourth straight, beat Sky 81-74

 In their second victory against the Chicago Sky this season, Elena Delle Donne dominated once again.

In 33 minutes of play, the star forward racked up 22 points, seven rebounds and 9 of 15 field goals against her former team. She led the Mystics in points and rebounds. 

Tianna Hawkins brought a spark off the bench, tallying 15 points, four rebounds, six of ten field goals and a +11 differential in just 18 minutes of play. 

The Mystics won all four games on this road trip, tying their season-high win streak from earlier this season. Washington is now 8-3 as they head home to host the Connecticut Sun, who just snapped a seven-game win streak.

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Free Agency Bracket: Joonas Donskoi vs. Carl Gunnarsson

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NBC Sports Washington

Free Agency Bracket: Joonas Donskoi vs. Carl Gunnarsson

It is almost time for NHL free agency to begin and the Capitals certainly have needs to fill and a limited budget. Who would be the best fit? Who would be the best free agent target for Washington to pursue? That’s what NBC Sports Washington wants to find out!

Our experts got together and made a bracket of the 16 best free agent fits. The bracket is divided into four regions: Third line forward, fourth line forward, depth defenseman and Caps’ free agent. Now we want you to tell us who you want to see rocking the red next year!

Every weekday we will match two free agents up against one another and present a case for each player. Then you get to vote and decide who advances!

Check out today’s semifinal matchup:

Joonas Donskoi vs. Carl Gunnarsson

2018-19 stats

Joonas Donskoi (27 years old): 80 games played for the San Jose Sharks, 14 goals, 23 assists, 37 points, 13:25 TOI

Playoffs: 12 games played for the San Jose Sharks, 1 goal, 2 assists, 3 points, 12:26 TOI

Carl Gunnarsson (32 years old): 25 games played with the St. Louis Blues, 3 goals, 4 assists, 7 points, 15:15 TOI

Playoffs: 19 games played with the St. Louis Blues, 1 goal, 2 assists, 3 points, 14:57 TOI, won Stanley Cup

Hockey-Graph contract projections 

Joonas Donskoi: 3 years, $2,847,521 cap hit

Carl Gunnarsson: 1 year, $731,159 cap hit

The case for Joonas Donskoi

Maybe Andre Burakovsky’s qualifying offer of $3.25 million means he’s back with the Capitals for another year. But it doesn’t preclude a trade and in Donskoi you’d have a similar option at a cheaper price, which matters if you only have $9.2 million in cap space left for now.

Donskoi made the offense better in San Jose in whatever role he was asked to play. He can go up and down the lineup and had a consistency to his game that Burakovsky at times lacks. Donskoi’s stats may not always reflect that, but making his teammates around him better is a valuable asset. Either way, depth scoring is important and a priority for the Capitals. 

Donskoi has every bit the Stanley Cup playoff experience as Burakovsky does if that matters to you. Donskoi has nine goals and 12 assists in 50 playoff games and Burakovsky has nine goals and nine assists in 56 playoff games. Not much to chose between the team except Donskoi would be cheaper if Washington decided to trade Burakovsky. 

The case for Carl Gunnarsson

The Caps will need a No. 6/7 defenseman after Brooks Orpik retired on Tuesday. Yes, they gave a qualifying offer to RFA defenseman Christian Djoos and they have Jonas Siegenthaler under contract, too. Both are natural left side defensemen. Going with the kids is an option. But both of them? That becomes problematic when someone gets hurt in your top two pairings and players have to bump up. 

Gunnarsson was the hero of the “Boston Pee Party” when he scored the overtime winner in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final after declaring to head coach Craig Berube at the urinal he just needed one more opportunity. Gunnarsson had just seven points in the regular season so no one should expect a ton of offense, but the point is he delivered when it mattered most.

When he is not playing the overtime hero, he is a third-pairing, stay at home defenseman who can play on the penalty kill which is pretty much exactly what the Caps need in a depth defenseman.

Take a look at Gunnarsson’s contract projection. You can’t beat that price. Sure, those projections came out before he won the Stanley Cup, but even if his price goes up, it will not be significant. You’re tinkering at the margins of the roster here and championship experience matters. 

Who’s your pick? Vote here:

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