By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — Although the Tar Heels are the reigning women’s lacrosse national champions, many of Carolina’s offensive leaders trying to continue the program tradition of excellence this season aren’t battle-tested in NCAA tournament play.
No. 4 UNC rolled to a 16–5 first-round victory Friday over Sacred Heart for the Heels’ 20th consecutive win in an NCAA tournament opener on a beautiful afternoon at Dorrance Field as the young team keeps improving.
“Very few of my players are tested in the NCAA tournament except for some of my defenders,” UNC coach Jenny Levy said. “It’s all inexperienced players out there. It’s different. We have to be more patient. Each game that we play throughout the season, they were learning.”
Carolina (15–4) advanced to a second-round home game at noon Sunday (ESPN+) against No. 17 Richmond (15–4), which beat No. 22 Marquette 18–8 in Friday’s second game. It was Carolina’s first game in nearly two weeks, and playing a first-round game was new for the Tar Heels, who are accustomed to first-round byes.
Levy said that with a different group from last season, her team doesn’t feel pressure to repeat the national championship run.
“I think the pressure they feel is that they just want to do well for themselves and for this team,” Levy said. “It’s not about defending the title, really, at this time of year. It’s really about going to seek a new one.”
Two attackers led the way offensively, redshirt sophomore Reilly Casey and freshman Marissa White, who entered the postseason with one NCAA tournament game of experience between them.
Casey (top photo), who notched five goals and two assists, only played in the opener last season in UNC’s unbeaten run to an NCAA title. White’s hat trick gave her a team-high 43 goals for the season.
“We’re clicking at the right time for a young team, but we’re hungry, and I think we’re just coming together at the right time,” Casey said. “We have 20 leaders on the team; we don’t look towards one person, which I think makes our team so special.”
They may not have much tournament experience, but the toughest strength of schedule in the country has prepared the Tar Heels.
“We played a really challenging schedule, hoping that that would give us an opportunity to learn and get better and be able to draw from things this time of year,” Levy said.
Carolina’s big strength is on the defensive end with senior Emily Nalls, a Tewaaraton Award nominee, and sophomore Brooklyn Walker-Welch, who had a game-high five groundballs.
“I do think we have two of the best defenders in the country, if not the best,” Levy said of Nalls and Walker-Welch. “If we’ve played [tough opponents], they’ve matched them, and they’ve done a good job.”
This team isn’t full of experienced leaders like last season, but Levy said the ceiling for this team is high.
“If you play well together, and you play with fire and heart and execute well because you’re confident, we’re just as capable as the next guy,” Levy said.
Freshman attacker Caroline Godine fired in an unassisted goal in transition nearly six minutes into the game, and White scored off of a feed from Casey nearly three minutes later to start the scoring after a bit of a choppy start to the game. Casey scored a free-position goal 56 seconds later, then assisted on a Caitlyn Wurzburger score to give UNC a 4–0 edge while outshooting the Pioneers 11–2.
“I think there’s things that we did really well,” Levy said. “And there are things that I wish we had done a lot sharper, especially in the first half. But I think we did a good job in the second half coming out taking care of business.
“You’ve got to communicate with each other, you’ve got to move the ball and get time up your cuts,” Levy said. “It just took us a little bit to get that timing. But once we got that timing, I thought we did a great job.”
Sacred Heart (11–8) came alive with second-quarter goals from Maggie Araneo, Shae Insinga and Lydia Werlau. But goals from White, Casey and senior midfielder Nicole Humphrey earned Carolina a 7–3 halftime lead.
UNC padded its lead in the third quarter on goals from Wurzburger, junior midfielder Alyssa Long, Casey and White with the Pioneers getting an Araneo goal to push the Tar Heels’ lead to 11–4 entering the final quarter.
In the fourth quarter, the Tar Heels notched goals from freshman attacker Kiley Mottice, Casey, fifth-year attacker Lauren Figura and sophomore midfielder Liv Pikiell.
NOTES — It was the first meeting between UNC and Sacred Heart. … UNC outshot the Pioneers 32–13, including 24–9 on goal. … Wurzburger’s three assists tied her for fourth all-time in program history at 92. … UNC is 41–20 all-time in NCAA tournament games, including 30–3 in Chapel Hill, where the Tar Heels have won 29 of their last 31 NCAA games. … Carolina won its opening NCAA tournament game for the 22nd time in 24 appearances, with the last loss coming in 2000.
No. 4 UNC 16, Sacred Heart 5
|11||Sat.||14–9 W||No. 7 James Madison||Home||1–0|
|18||Sat.||12–5 W||No. 6 Florida||Home||3–0|
|24||Friday||10–6 W||Virginia Tech||Blacksburg, Va.||4–0, |
|3||Friday||16–5 W||No. 2 Boston College||Home||5–0, |
|11||Sat.||17–12 W||No. 12 Virginia||Home||6–0, |
|16||Thurs.||20–7 W||Louisville||Louisville||7–0, |
|19||Sunday||13–9 L||No. 1 Northwestern||Evanston, Ill.||7–1|
|23||Thurs.||22–4 W||High Point||Home||8–1|
|26||Sunday||17–8 W||Clemson||Home||9–1, |
|1||Sat.||16–12 L||No. 7 Notre Dame||South Bend, Ind.||9–2, |
|7||Friday||16–3 W||Pittsburgh||Home||10–2, |
|11||Tuesday||12–8 W||East Carolina||Greenville||11–2|
|15||Sat.||14–12 L||No. 3 Syracuse||Home||11–3, |
|20||Thurs.||13–12 W||Duke||Durham||12–3, |
|26||Wed.||16–6 W||Quarterfinals |
|28||Friday||15–9 W||Semifinals |
vs. No. 3 Syracuse
vs. No. 2 Boston College
|12||Friday||16–5 W||First round: |
|14||Sunday||16–12 W||Second round:|
No. 17 Richmond
No. 5 Denver
Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications