Talented freshmen help UNC finally knock off Maryland
VILLANOVA, Pa. -- In 21 breathless seconds, from one endline all the way to the other, a pair of rookies delivered North Carolina its first national championship Sunday night in the longest NCAA lacrosse championship title game of all time.
It all started seconds into the third sudden-death overtime when Megan Ward stretched every fiber of her 5-foot-2 frame to deny Brooke Griffin's soaring liner headed towards the right corner of the net, tipping it skyward before getting it settled into her stick pocket.
Within seconds, the Tar Heels' rush towards the Maryland cage was nearly complete when Sammy Jo Tracy slowed her sprint, cocked her stock and unleashed a shot that found the back of the cage to set off a wild celebration across the Villanova Stadium turf.
And with that, third-seeded North Carolina (18-3) ended 72:31 of taut, exciting play with a 13-12 victory against top-seeded and previously undefeated Maryland (22-1), finally hoisting a championship trophy after several years of lagging behind squads such as Northwestern and Maryland — teams the Tar Heels derailed this weekend.
“At the end of the second overtime, I just kind of sat back and trusted my kids to do what they do,” UNC coach Jenny Levy said. “They've worked so hard all year and i'm so proud of the effort they showed and their composure.”
In addition to finally earning the right to raise the walnut and bronze trophy, North Carolina finally defeated Maryland for the first time this season. The Tar Heels had lost 14-13 on April 6 and 12-8 in the ACC championship game on April 28.
After playing the second half most of the season, Ward only won the starting spot guarding the North Carolina cage right before postseason play began after Levy decided the statistical evidence earned the rookie full-time playing time, beating out senior Lauren Maksym.
Maryland appeared to have its first national championship captured since 2010 when Griffin unleashed her shot. Only Ward stretched all of herself skyward, starting the decisive sequence.
“I thought it was a great setup,” Maryland coach Cathy Reese said. “What an opportunity to have coming at the goal with one of our best shooters. It didn't fall. There were a lot of them throughout the overtimes.”
Ward certainly played the part in both games this weekend. Her two early stops set a firm tone in a surprisingly easy 11-4 trouncing of Northwestern in the semifinals. However, that was nothing compared to her play during the white-knuckle moments of overtime.
At the very end of the first overtime, Maryland came dangerously close to claiming the championship for itself until Ward snatched Taylor Cummings' high liner out of air a split second before time expired. Early in that first extra session, Ward denied Beth Glaros on a free-position shot to enable UNC to exhale.
It was a credit to Ward, who finally settled in after allowing five goals in the first 10:05 of the second half, enabling a game that North Carolina controlled to become an 11-9 Maryland lead.
Of her save at the start of the third overtime, Ward said, “I knew I had to make it because it was sudden death. But I knew if I would make it, our attack would go down and finish it.”
North Carolina had its own chances before Tracy's game-winning tally. Tournament Most Outstanding Player Kara Cannizzaro saw two potential game-winners stopped by Kasey Howard in the second overtime, the last one a terrific reaction to a free-position shot.
This all provided a perfect setup for Tracy, who streaked down the center of the field after receiving a feed from Brittney Coppa, converging on the goal cage and history when she stopped about 20 feet away, fired and set off a championship celebration across.
“It literally all feels like a dream,” Tracy said. “To see that ball go in the back of the net is something I dreamed about since my dad put a stick in my hands.”