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Brian Falzarano | | May 22, 2015

UNC back in title game despite injuries that almost derailed season

  North Carolina earned its third trip to the championship game with a 16-7 win against Duke.

CHESTER, Penn. -- Serendipity smiled upon North Carolina on its last trip to the Philadelphia area two years ago. Everything aligned perfectly that night under the lights at Villanova University, ending with the Tar Heels finally hoisting the Walnut and Bronze following a triple-overtime thriller against Maryland in perhaps the greatest NCAA Division I Women’s Lacrosse Championship game ever.

A year later, the same good fortune they experienced turned sour -- at least by North Carolina standards. Five standouts suffered serious injuries across a trying season, denying Jenny Levy’s squad a chance to reach the semifinals let alone repeat as champions.

Even within the past two months, more maladies threatened to derail the Tar Heels. A week after Brittany Coppa tore her right ACL -- 15 months after doing the same in her left knee -- they lost then-leading scorer Molly Hendrick to, you guessed it, a knee injury.

“I think when those kids got injured,” Duke coach Kerstin Kimel said, “they flipped a switch, to their credit.”

Kimel watched it all unfold at field level Friday night at PPL Park, watching the second-seeded Tar Heels thoroughly dominate her third-seeded Blue Devils in all aspects en route to a 16-7 triumph in the NCAA Division I Women’s Lacrosse Championship semifinals.

Whether Sunday night’s title game delivers No. 1 Maryland in a rematch of the 2013 championship or No. 4 Syracuse in a repeat pairing of this season’s Atlantic Coast Conference final it lost in overtime a few weeks ago, North Carolina (18-3) is just thrilled to be a prominent part of the championship conversation again.

“It’s really exciting to be back,” said junior Aly Messinger, who led all players with three goals and two assists. “This is our goal every year. I’m really happy for our team to accomplish that goal and to play again on Sunday.”

Last season, much of North Carolina coach Levy’s best lineup was sidelined when the NCAA tournament started: Coppa, fellow senior Kelly Devlin and sophomore Sydney Holman were each hobbled by bad knees, while junior Sammy Jo Tracy hurt her foot.

After bowing out in the 2014 quarterfinals, the Tar Heels rallied this time around after receiving the double-whammy within a eight-day span that saw Coppa tear another ACL and Hendrick go down for the remainder of the year.

“I think it’s toughened our team,” Levy said. “They’ve had to buy into even further that you have to work to be the best you can be because you never know when you’re going to be tapped (to play).

“Whether it’s made us more focused or appreciate being out there, we’ve had to turn it into a positive because it’s the only option we have.”

Offensively, 10 Tar Heels scored against Duke (16-5). One of them was Coppa, who is in her fifth season. She defied the odds by coming back, even on a limited basis, thanks to North Carolina’s sports medicine staff finding the right brace and putting her through rigorous rehabilitation.

Just 6.5 seconds before intermission, Coppa’s only goal gave her team an emotional lift heading into a second half that saw the victors net six unanswered goals to take control.

“It really pumped us up as a team,” Messinger said. “It really brought the fire we needed in the second half.”

Meanwhile, a defense led by All-Americans Courtney Waite and Caylee Waters (four saves in one half) held the Blue Devils to 14 shots on goal while limiting leading scorer Kerrin Maurer, a first-team All-American who entered with 41 tallies, to two assists.

“The defense is the anchor of our team,” Messinger said.

Two years later, the Tar Heels are a team that’s overcome two more major injuries to play for another national championship in suburban Philadelphia.

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