February 22, 2013

North Carolina Finishes Job, Upsets Northwestern

by Henry Gargan | LaxMagazine.com | Live Blog Replay

North Carolina raced to a 7-1 first-half lead and held off Northwestern 11-8 on Friday night in Chapel Hill.
© Greg Wall (file)

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — After No. 5 North Carolina scored seven goals in the first 15 minutes of Friday's matchup against top-ranked Northwestern, the greatest dynasty in college lacrosse, fans could be forgiven for thinking it was too good to be true.

In the past three meetings between the two teams, the Wildcats had come back from deficits to defeat the Tar Heels by a single goal in each contest.

Yet the Tar Heels proved that the spell of those losses held no influence over this year's squad. UNC held on to defeat the Wildcats 11-8 for only the third time in program history.

"Northwestern is a defending national champion, and they're going to get every team's best effort," UNC coach Jenny Levy said. "But I hope that my team will give every team we play its best effort. Tonight was the beginning of that."

The Tar Heels have struggled this year and in past seasons with holding on to leads. UNC, Levy said, tends to score quickly but fade equally. In its season-opener against Florida, North Carolina scored three goals in the first nine minutes. The Gators won 5-3.

And indeed, UNC's 6-0 run during the first half gave way to a 3-0 run by Northwestern to close it. In the second half, the Tar Heels scored two quick goals only to allow the Wildcats to score three of their own in a period spanning just over a minute and a half.

But somehow, the Tar Heels dug in their heels at both ends of the field just in time. UNC never replicated the furious scoring pace it set in the first 15 minutes, but it didn't fold, either.

UNC's Abbey Friend, who led all scorers with three goals, twice provided an insurance goal when the Tar Heels' lead had dwindled to two. Friend put the Tar Heels up 10-7 with 15 minutes to play and then 11-8 to seal the game with a minute remaining.

"A lot of people have said that in all sports — basketball, football, anything — it's just a game of swings," said senior captain Taylor George, who scored two first-half goals. "But it's hard, because it's very emotional, like a roller coaster, up and down. Being able to ride the highs and battle the lows — that is, I think, the key to a great team and playing great games."

George said playing Northwestern is intimidating, especially for the few freshmen granted that responsibility. But freshman Sammy Jo Tracy scored two goals and assisted two others. And it was freshman goalkeeper Megan Ward who made six second-half saves to keep the Wildcats from deflating UNC's lead even further.

As she did against Richmond last weekend, Levy substituted Ward for senior goalkeeper Lauren Maksym in the second half. Against Northwestern, though, the move speaks volumes about the confidence Levy has in her roster's youth.

"She made some unbelievable saves," Levy said. "Meg has really just played great. I'm really happy for her. It's a lot of pressure on her shoulders, but she handled it well."

If UNC was feeling the pressure, Northwestern coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said that her team might not have felt it enough.

"I think they wanted it more... I think that sometimes that's the tough part about being on top, you just think it's going to come to you."

— Northwestern coach Kelly Amonte Hiller

"I think that they wanted it more," she said. "I think that sometimes that's the tough part about being on top, you just think it's going to come to you. And when you play against a great team that wants it, and wants it pretty bad, you're in trouble."

The Wildcats certainly seemed sluggish in the first half, committing nine turnovers and scoring just a single goal. Northwestern controlled nine of 12 draws in the opening period, yet somehow, the Tar Heels dominated possession. Slippery conditions might have stymied the Wildcats' normally explosive offense, but Amonte Hiller said that didn't tell the whole story.

"I thought we fought back, but it was a little too late," she said. "We just made some really poor plays in the first half — bad decisions, we weren't coming up with the 50-50 balls, and that's going to eat away at you when you play a good team."

And the Tar Heels are aware that the stone with which they felled Goliath could very well be slung at them after Friday's game. After showing it can tackle the complacency that comes with a large lead, UNC will have to prove it can handle the thrill of beating the nation's No. 1 team.

"We like that we are always one of the top teams in the country, but it's important to remember for us that we still have a lot of work to do and we don't want to be complacent with this one," George said. "We're obviously hugely excited and very confident, but it's very important that we not be satisfied with where we are."

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