UNC tops two-time defending champion Northwestern to earn trip to title game
VILLANOVA, Pa. -- If the first half of Friday night's NCAA Division I Women's Lacrosse National Championship semifinal served notice that Northwestern's reign as national champion was on borrowed time, an early second-half snapshot provided affirmation.
The outset of the second half offered one of those fleeting moments that made many inside of Villanova Stadium think it was the beginning of a Northwestern about-face that would extend the sport's greatest dynasty. A Kat DeRonda shot from about eight feet away had seemingly halved North Carolina's lead to 4-2.
Then the Wildcats' brief celebration became cause for lament.
From the start of a turnaround after an uncharacteristically subpar first half, the Wildcats found themselves a player down after a dangerous propelling call and subsequent yellow card issued against DeRonda. Within seconds, North Carolina's Abbey Friend found the back of the cage, a two-score swing that ultimately ensured a new champion would hoist the Walnut and Bronze on Sunday night.
“It's the difference between 4-2 and 5-1,” Northwestern coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said.
“That's a huge difference. I think we came out of the locker room strong, but when we get the momentum squashed that quickly, that's tough.
“And they were excellent capitalizing on their opportunities. We didn't play our best.”
Finally, after finding its championship path detoured by second-seeded Northwestern three of the previous four years, No. 3-seed North Carolina impressively and emphatically took down a team that won seven of the previous eight national titles. Its 11-4 victory gave the Tar Heels a spot in just their second championship game, while also handing the sport's standardbearer its worst loss in an NCAA game.
North Carolina (17-3) will now play either No. 1 Maryland or No. 5 Syracuse on Sunday night at Villanova.
“Anytime you come into the NCAA tournament, anyone has a chance to upset the No. 1 or beat any team really,” said Friend, who recorded a hat trick. “It's definitely in the back of my mind how many national championships they won … I think we came out strong.”
Slowly at first but emphatically throughout, the Tar Heels claimed control. After rookie goalie Megan Ward made terrific stops on Northwestern (19-3) standouts Erin Fitzgerald and Taylor Thornton, the Tar Heels tacked on the game's first two goals. Jessica Griffin converted a free-position shot before Friend converted a tough one-handed goal to give their squad a 2-0 advantage less than seven minutes into the action.
Eventually the Wildcats answered, although it took more than 13 minutes.
However, North Carolina replied two more times before halftime: First, Aly Messinger used a spin move to elude a defender and beat the goalie one on one, then again when Friend tallied the second of her three goals off a free-position charge.
“We're always on edge throughout the entire game,” Friend said. “I think we actually had momentum the entire game. I think that's something we worked on ... I wouldn't say it was a specific momentum shift. I think we did a great of staying focused the entire game.”
Once Northwestern's early second-half goal got waved off, North Carolina scored three more times -- a string of five unanswered goals that left only the Tar Heels' margin of victory in doubt. Tewaarton Award finalist Kara Cannizzaro finished with four goals, equaling the opposition's entire output, while Ward put aside seven shots in a stellar performance between the pipes.
“I'm really proud of my players,” North Carolina coach Jenny Levy said. “I really thought we stuck to the game plan. We really believed and trusted in each other.”
And now, following perhaps the finest performance in their postseason history, the Tar Heels will play for their first national championship since losing to Northwestern in 2009.
“I can't believe we're in the championship [game] my freshman year,” Ward said. “My team just played so well. I'm really proud of them.”