Every team that Northwestern played this year knew how to beat them: score early, take out NU’s two most versatile players, then milk the clock and do not allow the Wildcats to run their fast-paced offense. Easier said than done, obviously. The difference between the rest of the teams and North Carolina: the Tar Heels executed, beating NU 11-4 in the NCAA semifinals Friday afternoon.
“They came out, they were confident, they played hard, they capitalized on the opportunities they had, they had a lot of different looks defensively and offensively, obviously they have a lot of different weapons,” coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said. “They did a great job game-planning and being ready and a lot of props to them.”
North Carolina scored seven of the first eight goals, just as they did on Feb. 22, when they beat NU for the first time this season. They neutralized NU senior stars Erin Fitzgerald and Taylor Thornton, who combined for zero goals, zero assists, zero draw controls, zero caused turnovers, and one ground ball. With a seven-goal lead and 12 minutes left in the game, North Carolina beat NU at its own game: playing keep away for minutes at a time to drain the clock.
NU’s streak of eight straight appearances in the NCAA Championship game ended with this loss in the semifinals. The fact that a loss in the semifinals is so shocking for NU lacrosse is a testament to its dominance of the sport over the better part of the last decade.
North Carolina took control from the start, scoring two goals in the first seven minutes. Senior Amanda Macaluso got the Cats on the board midway through the half, but the Tar Heels came back less than a minute later with the rebuttal goal.
North Carolina led 4-1 at halftime, despite the two teams nearly mirroring each other in the stat column. However, NU missed seven of its eight shots, while North Carolina made four of their seven. NU also missed all three of its free position shots, one of its fortes this season.
In the previous matchup between these two teams, the Cats also trailed at half, 7-1, but came back strong in the second to nearly pull of the comeback. That did not happen Friday.
Northwestern had its best opportunity to change the momentum just after halftime, with an apparent goal from junior Kat DeRonda, but the midfielder was called for an illegal follow-through and issued a yellow card. The Tar Heels scored on the map-up situation.
“It’s the difference between 4-2 and 5-1. That’s a huge difference,” Amonte Hiller said. “I think we came out of the locker room strong but when you get that momentum squashed that quickly, it’s tough. They were excellent at really capitalizing on their opportunities.”
North Carolina scored the first three goals after halftime, to take a six-goal lead. NU showed signs of a comeback with two goals in less than two minutes, and nearly 19 minutes left to play. However, the Tar Heels’ junior midfielder Kara Cannizzaro scored four straight goals to put the game out of reach.
To make matters worse, both junior Alyssa Leonard, NU’s top draw controller, and senior Gabriella Flibotte drew their second yellow cards of the game, resulting in ejections. Overall, the Cats drew five yellow cards and 25 penalties.
NU added a goal with just over three minutes left but it was too late for the Cats, who made only 25 percent of their shots, and missed all nine free position opportunities.
North Carolina will move on to play undefeated Maryland in the Championship on Sunday night.
For the seven NU seniors, this game marked the end of their Northwestern athletic careers. All seven have undoubtedly left a mark on the program, but none more than Fitzgerald and Thornton.
“My four years at Northwestern have just been an overall great experience,” Fitzgerald said. “The coaching staff here has really molded each of us and made us prepared for basically anything in life and I think me and Taylor and the rest of the seniors are just forever grateful for that. The girls that have been on this team, they become your best friends and you know that in ten years you’ll still feel like they’re your best friends, nothing changed. Really, overall, it’s been a great experience.”
Thornton echoed the sentiment, unable to hold back tears.
“Just being a kid in Dallas, Texas, who just had a dream to play in college and to be able to play for such as amazing coach and role model and program has truly been a life-changing experience and one that’s been a really great ride. I couldn’t have asked for anything better or more,” she said. “Kelly is someone who I look up to greatly and I wouldn’t be the same player if I’d gone anywhere else. She’s shaped me into the leader that I am today and the lacrosse player. I take the skills that I learned on the field, off. Northwestern University has been a really amazing experience and it’s something that I can’t sum up but (it was) pretty unique.”