Historic rally from 8 down puts UNC in its first women’s lacrosse final since 2016

By R.L. Bynum

Put this one in the Carolina sports history books alongside the 1974 men’s basketball rally from eight points down with 17 seconds left against Duke.

Eight down? No problem.

In one of the most amazing comebacks in UNC sports history, the unbeaten No. 1-ranked and No. 1-seed Tar Heels erased an eight-goal late third-quarter deficit to take an incredible 15–14 victory over No. 4-seed Northwestern in the NCAA women’s lacrosse national semifinals Friday at Johns Hopkins’ Homewood Field in Baltimore.  

Carolina attacker Sam Geiersbach, a graduate transfer from Richmond, scored all five of her goals in the fourth quarter, including the Tar Heels’ final four, to power UNC’s game-changing 11–1 run. Her score with 1:03 left gave UNC its first lead of the game.

Veteran Carolina goaltender Taylor Moreno, who came out for a few minutes in the third quarter, made her best save of the day on a shot by All-American Northwestern attacker Lauren Gilbert with 28 seconds left to preserve the victory.

“Overall, just an unbelievable game,” UNC coach Jenny Levy said. “So many contributions from so many different players and a lot of effort and a lot of just refusing to go away. Just incredibly proud.”

It earned a reprieve for UNC (21–0), which lost 11–10 to eventual national champion Boston College in the semifinals last year, and put the Tar Heels in their first national championship game since winning the second of their two NCAA titles in 2016.

It will be another all-ACC Final Four clash with BC. The Tar Heels will play the No. 3-seed Eagles (19–3) for the NCAA title at noon Sunday (ESPN). BC beat No. 2-seed Maryland 17–16 in Friday’s second national semifinal. BC lost to UNC 16–15 in Chesnut Hill, Mass., on March 20 and 16–9 in Chapel Hill on May 7 in the ACC championship game.

Attacker Jamie Ortega wasn’t ready for her decorated college career to end and finished with three goals and three assists.

“It all stems from just believing in each other and just trusting each other and no matter what defenses they are showing us, just taking one possession at a time,” she said. “That’s exactly what we did.

“It was just an unreal experience and I’m just really happy that we were able to push it out and do what we did and play Carolina lacrosse and actually be happy in a press conference and not crying,” Ortega said.

Carolina’s Sam Geiersbach scored all five of her goals in the final quarter.

UNC had dealt with few deficits this season but always rallied. It looked hopeless early in the second half but the Tar Heels somehow found a way. After Northwestern dominated draws for most of the game, Carolina owned them in the fourth quarter, led by Notre Dame transfer Andie Aldave.

“Sam started taking great risks against the back of their zone,” Levy said. “We just needed to play with more intensity and more poise.”

Two Jill Girardi goals and an Elle Hansen score that barely beat the shot clock gave Northwestern (16–5) a 3–0 lead in the first 4:12. Two consecutive goals from Gilbert, who finished with five, and a score from Leah Holmes in a stretch of 1:41 made it 6–0 with 3:49 left in the first period, a deficit UNC hadn’t faced all season.

After a 96-minute lightning delay, UNC got a free-position shot late in the quarter but Aldave couldn’t convert and the Tar Heels endured a scoreless first quarter.

Ortega said the weather delay helped the Tar Heels.

“In that little break, we kind of got together and talked about what needed to be done and we came out on the same page moving forward and each quarter we just kept being positive,” Ortega said.

Northwestern made life tough for Ortega, face-guarding her much of the day. UNC also had to deal with a zone after having a tough time against Stony Brook’s zone in the quarterfinals.

“They keep adjusting and I think, even at the end, they were in zoning me still,” Ortega said. “Sam was still able to take them one-v-one, which is impressive.”

Ortega finally broke through on a nice pass from Sam Geiersbach with the Wildcats short-handed in the first two minutes of the second quarter. Two minutes later, Ally Mastroianni’s driving shot off of an Ortega pass notched another goal.

After Carolina dominated most of the second quarter, a Gilbert score with 4:41 left in the first half ended a 14-minute scoring drought, then Samantha Smith’s goal on a free-position shot restored Northwestern’s six-goal edge by halftime at 8–2.

Ortega fed Mastroianni for an early second-half goal but Gilbert completed the hat trick 42 seconds later. Goals by Erin Coykendall and Gilbert shoved the lead to 11–3 4½ minutes into the second half.

The game got stranger at that point when Moreno, one of the best goalkeepers in Carolina program history, was pulled for freshman Alecia Nicholas, although Moreno returned later in the quarter.

“Obviously, it was not my day. And that’s completely OK,” Moreno said. “I think one of the things I’ve worked on in my time at Carolina is how to mentally handle situations like that. Kudos to Alecia. She went in there and she gave our defense the reset they needed.”

Levy said she always intended to put Moreno back in but she just wanted to settle her down.

“She’s a pro. She’s done this for six years,” Levy said. “She knows when she’s playing well and when she’s not. But she made the save of the day at the very end.”

UNC tried to rally, getting a Scottie Rose Growney goal off of an Ortega assist with 6:03 left in the third quarter. But it took Northwestern only 37 seconds to respond with another Hansen goal.

Oretega notched a player-up goal but, again, Northwestern quickly got it back on a Girardi score. UNC’s Caitlyn Wurzberger scored with six seconds left to make it 13–6 headed to the final period.

Another Mastroianni goal gave UNC back-to-back scores for only the second time in the game. Northwestern doubled the score on UNC, though, with a Dylan Amonte goal off of a Gilbert pass.

Goals by Wurzberger, Ortega, Growney and Geiersbach’s five scores gave Carolina the victory.

No. 1 UNC 15,
No. 4 Northwestern 14

Photos by Jeffrey Camarati/UNC Athletics

3 Comments

  1. Scott Simmerman says:

    Great article, RL. Another in a long series of covering UNC sports. Thanks. And, what a fantastic game.

    Like

    1. R.L. Bynum says:

      Thanks for reading, Scott.

      Like

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