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Lacrosse: Northwestern hands UNC first loss, cruises by Michigan

The ‘Cats jumped out to an early lead and never looked back.

Mackenzie Hudson/Northwestern Athletics

It had been 660 days since No. 1 North Carolina women’s lacrosse last lost a game. After Sunday’s marquee matchup between No. 3 Northwestern and the Tar Heels, that all changed when the Wildcats took down the top team in the nation, 13-9.

For those who don’t recall, UNC ended Northwestern’s season last year in what I would say is the one of greatest comebacks in sports I’ve ever seen, overcoming an 8-goal deficit en route to its third national championship.

Sunday, it was a different story. Coming off a strong 16-8 win over No. 17 Michigan on Thursday, the ‘Cats scored three unanswered goals to take the lead over the top-ranked, undefeated North Carolina Tar Heels.

It was truly a defensive showcase, as the Tar Heels hold the second-ranked defensive unit in the country, holding their opponents to an average of seven goals per game. Neither team could successfully find the back of the net for most of the first quarter until Emerson Bohlig made it 1-0 with 38 seconds to go in the first.

The ‘Cats maintained a steady lead over UNC, which has not trailed an opponent this season. NU went into the second quarter with a 2-0 lead, and an 8-4 advantage at the half.

The main difference for the Tar Heels going into the second half was the draw control battle. In the first half, Samantha Smith commanded the draws 12-2, but whatever head coach Jenny Levy said in the halftime regroup for North Carolina resulted in the Heels winning the second half draw fight 10-2.

Even when the Tar Heels were able to capitalize on having the ball, the Wildcat defense was astounding — namely Kendall Halpern and Samantha White, who tallied four and three huge caused turnovers, respectively, and three ground balls apiece. Northwestern accumulated 13 caused turnovers to North Carolina’s six. In doing so, the Tar Heels turned it over 15 times.

Molly Laliberty had a great day in net as well, totaling 10 saves on 26 shots. The lockdown-style defense that UNC is known for was the playing style the ‘Cats utilized, with shifting double teams on each player and pressuring them to run the shot clock down.

It’s hard to emphasize just how good North Carolina was last season; its national title showed that. With offensive stars like Scottie Rose Growney, Ally Mastroianni, Jamie Ortega and Sam Geiersbach (who mounted the infamous 2022 NCAA Semifinals comeback) as well as defensive standouts in Taylor Moreno and Emma Trenchard, fans questioned what the Tar Heels could do without them. The same could be said for Northwestern: while the Wildcats have Izzy Scane back, it lost stars Jill Girardi, Lauren Gilbert, Ally Palermo, Brennan Dwyer and Madison Doucette in net heading into this season.

Yet, it was going swimmingly for the Tar Heels as they headed into Ryan Fieldhouse 7-0 and 4-0 in ACC play. Perhaps North Carolina got flustered being down six goals at one point, or maybe, the ‘Cats just never quit. With such deep talent on both rosters, and with what happened in May 2022, Northwestern knew it could not take their foot of the gas at any point.

All told, Scane posted four goals and assist to lead all scorers despite being face-guarded by Emily Nalls most of the game. Three of her goals came in the second quarter.

If anyone was counting, she’s now got 46 goals on the season — in just seven games — to lead the nation. The two players who are next in line are James Madison’s Isabella Peterson, with 39 goals in nine games, and Michigan’s Jill Smith, who has 38 goals in 10 games. Smith had a hat trick in the Wolverines’ loss to the Wildcats earlier this week.

But the highlight reel play of the game was from Erin Coykendall to put the ‘Cats up 8-3. She accrued two goals on the day to bring her season total to 20 thus far, while Hailey Rhatigan notched a hat trick to give her 14 goals in five games.

While the Tar Heels were able to cut into Northwestern’s lead with just 12 minutes remaining to make it 10-8, three unanswered goals for the ‘Cats sealed the 13-9 win. This marked UNC’s first regular-season loss since 2019, and Northwestern’s first victory over the Tar Heels since 2014.

This matchup was redemption for last year’s two losses to North Carolina, and every player on the field had a part in the win. The defense and offense were working well together, and every play was scrappy and tough on both sides. The ‘Cats just outplayed their opponent, and what a win it was.

That being said, come May, it would be no surprise if this matchup happened again in the postseason between two of the most decorated programs in the sport of women’s lacrosse.

The ‘Cats move to 8-1 on the season and are now ranked No. 2 in the Inside Lacrosse/IWLCA rankings. Northwestern will face Johns Hopkins on the road on Thursday before dueling with Stanford and Penn State at home.