May 24, 2013

Carolina Gets Over Hump, Beats Northwestern

by Justin Feil |

* Maryland Outlasts Syracuse to Advance to Final
* Familiar Foes to Meet in Final

VILLANOVA, Pa. — To advance to its second NCAA tournament championship game, North Carolina had to do something it hadn’t ever been able to do.

The Tar Heels beat Northwestern in the postseason.

For the first time in five postseason matchups, third-seeded UNC (17-3) took an 11-4 win over defending national champion and second-seeded Northwestern (19-3) Friday night at Villanova Stadium in the NCAA semifinals.

North Carolina senior midfielder Kara Cannizzaro led the Tar Heels with four goals in a 11-4 win over defending national champion Northwestern on Friday night at Villanova Stadium.
© Greg Carroccio

"My concern going into the game was how successful they’ve been on this weekend," said UNC head coach Jenny Levy. "I think within the fabric of their program and their players there’s a strong belief that, regardless of the opponent, we have what it takes to win a championship. There’s a really strong belief on that team. It was a concern of mine coming in, could my kids out-believe their kids?"

UNC had beaten Northwestern, 11-8, on Feb. 22, but they had won before in the regular season only to fall in the NCAA tournament. It’s the first time since 2005 that Northwestern is not in the finals. UNC will play for its first NCAA title 8 p.m. Sunday against Maryland.

"We don’t really care who we play," said senior midfielder Kara Cannizzaro, who led UNC with four goals. "We’re just excited to be there."

All four of the Tewaaraton Award finalist’s goals came in a critical four-goal stretch to help the Tar Heels pull away midway through the second half after Northwestern had cut their deficit to 7-3 with almost 19 minutes still left.

"They took the faceguard off me and I was able to break in a few times in the second half which allowed us to get momentum just because my team really feeds off when I get going," Cannizzaro said. "Just because we’re so closely knit, when I get going, I think everyone feels a little momentum swing."

Abbey Friend had three goals, her ninth straight game with at least a hat trick, Aly Messinger had a goal and assist, and Sammy Jo Tracy, Kelly Devlin and Jessica Griffin all scored goals. That offense was more than enough with the way the North Carolina defense played.

"I really liked how we competed today," Levy said. "I thought we were poised. I thought we stuck together and I thought we executed on things, especially at the defensive end that were special."

Freshman goalie Megan Ward made seven saves in front of a defense that held Northwestern to its lowest NCAA output since 1988 when Penn State beat Cindy Timchal’s Wildcats, 12-6. The four goals allowed matched UNC’s season low, set against Jacksonville.

"We switched our defense a lot so it was kind of keeping them off guard," said Ward, who has played all three NCAA games after splitting time in goal throughout the regular season with senior Lauren Maksym. "I think every one of our defenders played so well and shut them down."

Levy credited assistant coach Phil Barnes with helping to implement the defensive plan that went away from the usual Tar Heels look. 

"We really wanted to try to come in and like any opponent we play, make them uncomfortable, and change things up and never let them get into a rhythm," Levy said. "We have really great athletes on defense. Our program has been known for how great we are defensively. We have the ability to run a lot of different things."

But when the UNC coaches had introduced their game plan at the beginning of the week, there were puzzled looks from the defenders. By game-time and certainly by game’s end, they were believers.

"We usually play straight up one-on-one (because) most teams can’t beat us one-on-one," Levy said. "We switched it up a little bit more. Within that one-on-one defense, we can do a whole bunch of stuff. We played more zone than we ever have, and probably played three or four different defenses in the course of the game and it was really effective."

It also helped that Northwestern didn’t shoot its best. The Wildcats were 0-for-9 on free positions, while North Carolina in contrast went 4-for-5.

"We didn’t play our best today," said Northwestern head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller. "We made a lot of errors and didn’t really finish our shots. To go 0-for-9, if we just score on the majority of those, we’ll win this game. We had our chances and in the big stage like this, you have to be able to be calm and cool and finish your chances."

North Carolina’s Griffin opened the game’s scoring with a free position goal. Friend scored three minutes later to start to give the Tar Heels a good start. In their regular-season win over Northwestern, UNC had jumped out to a 7-1 lead in the first half.

"I think we had momentum the entire game," Friend said, "and that’s something we’ve worked on, is not allowing a momentum shift in their favor. I thought we did a great job throughout the entire game of staying focused and working hard."

Amanda Macaluso scored the only first-half goal for Wildcats, more than 13 minutes into the game to cut the deficit to 2-1. The one goal was the lowest output in a half all season for Northwestern, who was held to two goals in each half against Florida in a 22-4 loss Apr. 20.

"We just didn’t want to let them be on the 8-meter and get back in the game by taking 8-meters," Levy said. "I think we gave up three early in the game and Meg had some great saves on those. I thought those were key saves early for us."

Following a Northwestern turnover, Cannizzaro sprinted the ball up field and found Friend, who earned a free-position goal and a 3-1 lead 2:45 before the half. At the half, Friend had two goals and Griffin and Messinger had a goal apiece for the Tar Heels.

"My team carried us the first half," Cannizzaro said. "That’s what allowed us to explode in the second half is how well my team did in the first half when I was shut down."

It was Northwestern that thought it started with momentum in the second half as Kat DeRonda came around the cage to put a shot past Ward, but was carded for a dangerous follow-through on the shot.

"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."

UNC increased its lead to 5-1 on some nifty passing off a free position. Garrity sent it laterally to Taylor George, who slipped it quickly down to Friend, who deposited her third goal of the contest. It was the first assist of the game.Garrity found a wide-open Tracy in the middle and UNC had a 6-1 lead with 23:19 left in the second half. Momentum increased for the Tar Heels when they scored just 24 seconds later on a free position from Devlin and their lead matched that of the regular-season meeting, but there were only 23 minutes left for a Wildcats comeback.

"We just really had to move the ball more," said Northwestern senior attack Erin Fitzgerald. "We really were trying to work it and the passes weren’t falling and the shots weren’t falling."

Northwestern snapped a 25:58 scoring drought when Alyssa Leonard came around from behind the cage, and fired it high over Ward to make it 7-2. The Wildcats looked to generate some momentum of their own as Kelly Rich deposited a feed from DeRonda to make it 7-3, but Carolina answered with four straight Cannizzaro goals.

"They’re a great team," Levy said. "They’re a great program. We know they’re going to make a run. It’s on us to respond."

It didn’t help Northwestern when they lost Alyssa Leonard to a second yellow card in the middle of Carolina’s run. Cannizzaro’s first goal came on a free position, her second on a nice feed from Messinger and then came a pair of goals in 22 seconds that broke Northwestern’s bid for a record-breaking ninth straight finals appearance. 

"Northwestern is good and has always been good," Levy said. "It’s just one weekend they didn’t advance, and we’re happy they didn’t."

Levy is hoping she can guide the Tar Heels to their first national title in North Carolina program history. As a player in her junior year, she helped Virginia to its first Division I NCAA championship in 1991. 

"What I remember is the coach was instrumental in guiding, but the team was actually the leaders," Levy said. "They dictated a lot of how they practiced and how they showed up on a day-by-day basis. I think when a team takes control like that, I think you can have some real effective results."

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