BALTIMORE, Md. — This one hurt. A lot.
Call it a curse. Call it fate. Call it what you want. Northwestern Lacrosse headed to the Final Four prepared to win, and it looked like that would be the case for three quarters. But, what matters in elimination play is the final score.
No. 4 Northwestern led by seven heading into the final 10 minutes, and No. 1 North Carolina scored eight unanswered goals before the clock wound down. The final score: 15-14.
In contrast to the end result, Northwestern came out searingly hot on both ends of the field in the first quarter, scoring six unanswered goals — UNC’s biggest in-game deficit of the season so far.
Graduate students Lauren Gilbert and Jill Girardi, no strangers to the big stage, scored two apiece while sophomore Leah Holmes snuck one in just before the first ring of thunder. The game entered a weather delay just before the end of the first quarter, but the break did little to shake the ‘Cats.
North Carolina had three turnovers in the first quarter, and Northwestern capitalized in response. Madison Doucette tallied two saves — it could have been more, but the ball stayed mostly in Northwestern’s offensive third thanks to Girardi and graduate student Brennan Dwyer’s work in the draw circle. Northwestern was also very precise in its shot selection, scoring six with only 10 shots on goal.
Carolina was still turning it over a bit after the break, but its defense was noticeably tougher than before. The Tar Heels were able to make a few shots, but Doucette continued what was shaping up to be a stellar day with five saves already. The first half concluded with a laser of a free position from Samantha Smith to set the score at 8-2.
The Tar Heels started off the second with a goal by Ally Mastroianni assisted by none other than Jamie Ortega, but then Gilbert chipped in her fourth goal of the day to keep the ‘Cats up six.
On NU’s next offensive possession, Erin Coykendall shot it from way beyond the arc with 10 minutes to go in the third, and Gilbert followed the junior’s score up with her fifth goal of the day to extend the lead to eight — the ‘Cats biggest lead of the day.
UNC’s Jamie Ortega then tallied her second goal of the game, but a few minutes later, Girardi notched a hat trick just before she broke Northwestern’s single-season draw control record, bringing in her fifth draw on the day for a season total of 182.
Both teams traded scores to end the third before one of the most heartbreaking quarters of lacrosse any Northwestern fan has witnessed in their lifetime.
Sparing the begrudgingly painful details, UNC showed why it would remain undefeated as the number one team in the country. The Tar Heels outscored Northwestern 9-1 in the fourth quarter, erasing what was once an eight-goal lead and turning it into a difficult flight home for the ‘Cats. Carolina graduate student Sam Geiersbach tallied five goals in the final 15 minutes to lift the Tar Heels to the championship game.
The Wildcats finished their season 15-5, with every single loss to a ranked opponent. Ultimately, the momentum early on was not sustained for Northwestern today at Homewood Field. Blame it on the weather, blame it on the Tar Heels, blame it on whoever or whatever you want — it just wasn’t in the cards for the ‘Cats in Baltimore this year. But man, what a fight it was.