April 10, 2014

The Race to No. 1: UNC-Syracuse Determines It All

By Laurel Pfahler | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

Maryland falls right in the middle between No. 1 UNC and No. 3 Syracuse. The Tar Heels trumped the Terps by two goals, while the Terps defeated the Orange by two. (John Strohsacker)

There isn’t much separation among the top three-ranked Division I women’s lacrosse teams right now.

One key game this weekend could be the deciding factor in determining who finishes the regular-season at No. 1.

Top-ranked North Carolina travels to play No. 3 Syracuse at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Carrier Dome with the winner likely to lock up the No. 1 spot. Both teams, along with No. 2 Maryland, have just one loss two weeks before the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament begins.

Carolina (12-1) fell to now-No. 4 Northwestern (8-3) last week but bounced back to beat the Terrapins the very next game, a win that saved the Tar Heels from a drop in the rankings. Maryland (13-1) beat Syracuse (12-1) earlier this season, but that loss could be forgiven with a favorable outcome against Carolina.

“It’s huge,” Syracuse coach Gary Gait said. “This is the best of the best playing each other. It’s an opportunity for us to play the defending national champions and play them at home in front of our fans and a chance to really see where we are as we head into the ACC tournament and NCAA tournament.

“Whoever wins this will be No. 1 next week.”

Both teams should be well prepared by now after playing ranked competition all season, but most of the pressure seems to be on Carolina, whose schedule lined up the other three Final Four teams from last year -- Northwestern, Maryland and Syracuse -- all in a row.

Syracuse beat Northwestern on March 23 but is coming off three straight wins, including its most recent victory over Virginia Tech, 18-4.

”It surprised us they came right in a row, but scheduling is getting more difficult and we didn’t have a lot of choice,” Carolina coach Jenny Levy said. “We play a competitive schedule, and whether it’s February, March or April, we’re accustomed to tough stretches. It comes with being a part of the ACC. Our kids come here to play a tough schedule, and we love those games.”

The 7-5 loss to Northwestern was a tough pill to swallow, Levy said, but her young Tar Heels squad showed resiliency against Maryland, coming back from a five-goal deficit to win 17-15 in a rematch of last year’s national championship.

Carolina shot 70.8 percent for the game and finished with 22 groundballs to overcome a huge advantage for the Terps on the draw control.

“Maryland is a great team,” Levy said. “They have a lot of great players. I like the fact we dug ourselves out of that hole because that’s good information about our team going forward. We have a lot of respect for Maryland and the same goes for Syracuse.”

Gait said it’s going to take something special to beat North Carolina, just like it did for the Tar Heels to beat Maryland, but he would like to think the same is true the other way around.

“I think we’re all at the point where any game whoever steps up and has the better game has a chance to win,” Gait said, referring to his team, Carolina and Maryland. “We’re all at that level, so some area of your game has to be outstanding to put yourself over the top.”

Carolina brings the No. 1 scoring offense in the nation, averaging 17.3 goals per game, while Syracuse follows right behind with a scoring average of 16.2. Abbey Friend leads the Tar Heels with 45 goals, and Kayla Treanor has a team-high 44 for the Orange, which seeks its first national title this season.

Maryland ranks seventh in scoring offense (15.2 goals) and defense (7.7 goals allowed). Kelly McPartland has 40 goals for the Terps this season.

Gait said his team’s 12-10 loss to Maryland on March 10 “feels like so long ago.” Both Syracuse and Carolina should have some confidence coming into Saturday’s matchup, and that certainly will be the case going forward for the winner.

“Anything can happen any game, but the key is these games provide that level of confidence where you can go into a game like a national championship and know you can compete at that level, make some plays and have a shot at winning,” Gait said.

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