February 27, 2016
No. 1 Maryland edged North Carolina 8-7 after beating the Tar Heels by a single goal in the 2015 NCAA championship game. (Peyton Williams)
No. 1 Maryland edged North Carolina 8-7 after beating the Tar Heels by a single goal in the 2015 NCAA championship game. (Peyton Williams)

Maryland Still the Team to Beat After Toppling UNC

by Matt White | Twitter | Photos

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - After an early season rematch of last year’s national championship game, not much has changed at the top of women’s lacrosse.

Maryland is still a goal better than North Carolina, and both are very good.

The defending champion Terrapins outlasted UNC, 8-7, in a game dominated by defense and particularly by both goalies. Maryland came into Saturday averaging 18 goals per game, UNC 15.

“Quite a defensive battle on both sides,” said Maryland coach Cathy Reese. “Carolina’s defense made it hard for us to find easy looks on goal. Typically, we’ve got two of the most powerful offenses in the game. I’m just really proud of how we came out on defense. We worked on it on all week.”

UNC goalie Caylee Waters recorded 13 saves, matching a career-high, against 26 Maryland shots, many on point-blank opportunities. Maryland freshman Megan Taylor, playing her first full college game, finished with eight saves, as Maryland’s defense held the Tar Heel offense to less than half its usual output.

“I was happy with my performance, it was better than last week’s” said Waters, referring to UNC’s 16-15 loss to Florida a week ago that knocked Carolina from a No. 2 ranking, spoiling a 1-v-2 matchup Saturday. “My defense forced a lot of shots that I’d seen in practice.”

Waters also neutralized a sizable Maryland advantage in free-positions. The Terrapins were awarded seven 8-meter opportunities but scored just once, thanks to several Waters saves. UNC scored on its only free position.

“I think (Waters) is so talented,” said Reese. “We were getting some really good looks at the cage and she would come out of nowhere to stop it.

Offensively, Maryland’s Megan Whittle scored a game-high four goals, three in the second half to stop a UNC comeback, while UNC stymied Taylor Cummings after two early goals. Whittle's fourth goal came with 3:39 to play, breaking a 7-7 tie to give Maryland the win.

“Whittle shot really well today,” said Reese. “Taylor was dishing off, organizing us on offense a little bit. We’ve got a lot of new faces out there and I think we needed to get some of the jitters out offensively.”

Cummings, the two-time Tewaaraton winner, was scoreless in the second half and controlled just two draws against UNC’s Sammy Jo Tracy, who won six.

Early on, Maryland appeared ready to run away from UNC. The Tar Heels trailed just 4-1 at the half thanks mostly to Waters’ six first-half saves. UNC could not find a rhythm for its usual slashing offense while the speed of Maryland’s Cummings, Whittle and freshman Caroline Steele seemed to shock North Carolina’s defense. Cummings scored twice on easy feeds and Steele and Whittle got first-half goals by running past defenders.

But in the second half, Carolina’s offense woke up. UNC scored four of the first five goals in the half, including three in three minutes to tie the score at 5-5 as Ally Messinger, Tracy and Sydney Holman all beat their defenders with aggressive dodging.

But tellingly for North Carolina, a team that usually slices up opponents with quick cuts and precision passing, its offense recorded just one assist. Even as Carolina came back, the Terrapins were shutting down passing lanes and using thier team speed to keep defensive slides short.

With each team headed into conference play, both emerged with a possible answer to a major preseason concern. For Maryland, Taylor’s day in goal should ease minds about the loss of All-Big 10 goalie Alex Fitzpatrick. Reese said she had intended to change goalies at the half, but Taylor’s play convinced her to keep the freshman on the field.

“We’re working through that spot right now,” said Reese. “She’s showing us what she can do.”

Carolina started the season missing junior All-American Maggie Bill. A key cog in last year’s offense and the team’s leading scorer in the title game, Bill is redshirting in 2016. Her replacement, freshman Olivia Ferrucci, scored twice Saturday and bolstered UNC’s transition game as it recorded clears on six of seven chances.

“It’s an early season game and its great to go against a team like Maryland,” said UNC coach Jenny Levy. “I thought my defense played well, holding a team like Maryland to eight goals."

“It's a good test for us. Early season games against out of conference opponents help you in the long run.”

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