Reigning national champion UNC faces unbeaten Denver in NCAA women’s lacrosse quarterfinal

By R.L. Bynum

The reigning national champion North Carolina women’s lacrosse team was battle-tested heading into the NCAA tournament quarterfinals, where the young Tar Heels face the latest of many huge challenges this season.

UNC (16–4) faces No. 5 Denver (21–0) at 5 p.m. (ESPNU) at Dorrance Field with a trip to the Final Four in Cary on the line as the Tar Heels seek their fourth national title. It will be the Tar Heels’ fifth top-five opponent and third in the last five games.

How much has Carolina been tested? All four of the Tar Heels’ losses have come against one of the final eight teams left in the NCAA tournament. That experience is helpful for a team with little NCAA tournament experience, considering 36.9% of UNC’s goals have come from true freshmen.

The Pioneers will be the sixth of the Elite Eight teams that the Tar Heels have played this season. They are 3–4 in those games, splitting two games each with No. 3-ranked Syracuse and No. 2-ranked Boston College, beating No. 7 James Madison and losing road games against No. 1 Northwestern and No. 8 Notre Dame.

UNC will only be Denver’s second opponent among the final eight after the Pioneers beat Boston College on March 19 in Jacksonville, Fla., 13–8.

Should UNC beat Denver, it would likely get a chance to avenge that loss to Northwestern (18–1), which hosts Loyola Maryland (19–2) at 7:30 p.m. on the Tar Heels’ side of the bracket. On the other half of the bracket, James Madison (19–2) is at Syracuse (17–2) at noon and Notre Dame (15–5) visits ACC champion BC (17–3) at 2:30. All quarterfinal games air on ESPNU.

While playing in quarterfinal games is new for many members of the young Tar Heels, it’s also new for most of the Denver players. The Pioneers lost to No. 1 Maryland in their only other quarterfinals appearance in 2019.

Since 2019, UNC leads the country in wins at 82, with Denver third at 76, and the Pioneer’s 10 losses are the second-fewest behind Carolina’s nine. Carolina has won all four previous meetings, with the last coming 13–3 in Denver on March 7, 2011, and the closest margin six-goal UNC wins in 2008 and 2009.

Carolina is 13–9 in quarterfinal games and has won 10 of its last 13.

Freshman attacker Marissa White, the No. 2 recruit nationally in her class, leads the team with 45 goals. Junior attacker Caitlyn Wurzburger has a team-high 71 points (37 goals, 34 assists), followed by redshirt sophomore attacker Reilly Casey with 70 (36 goals, 34 assists.)

Wurzburger has combined for four assists in UNC’s NCAA tournament wins over Sacred Heart (16–5) and No. 16 Richmond (16–12), giving her 93 for her career, which is fourth all-time in program history. She is the 13th UNC player to notch 200 career points and has scored in all but one game this season.

Senior defender Emily Nalls has caused a team-high 29 turnovers to lead a group that is eighth in the country in scoring defense at 8.6 goals per game. Senior midfielder Olivia Dirks has led the way on draw controls with 66.

Sophomore goalkeeper Alecia Nicolas has 144 saves, stopping 46.2% of shots on goal after replacing legendary goalkeeper Taylor Moreno.

Senior attacker Julia Gilbert leads Denver with 56 goals and 64 points.

Leading the Denver defense are senior Sam Thacker, named Wednesday as first-team USA Lacrosse Magazine All-America, and fifth-year player Trinity McPherson, named to the second team. Thacker has forced a team-high 50 turnovers and McPherson leads the team with 127 draw controls.

UNC defender Brooklyn Walker-Welch earned third-team honors, and getting honorable mentions were White, Wurzburger, Nicholas, junior midfielder Alyssa Long and freshman attacker Caroline Godine.

Coach Jenny Levy’s 42 NCAA tournament wins are tied for second all-time with Maryland’s Cathy Reese, trailing only the 50 wins from Northwestern’s Kelly Amonte-Hiller.

UNC statistics

NCAA tournament

Thursday’s quarterfinals
(All games on ESPNU)
No. 2-seed Syracuse 13, No. 7 James Madison 7
No. 3 Boston College 20, Notre Dame 6
No. 5 Denver (21–0) at No. 4 North Carolina (16–4), 5 p.m.
No. 8 Loyola Maryland (19–2) at No. 1 Northwestern (18–1), 7:30
Tournament concludes in Cary
Friday, May 26
Both games on ESPNU
UNC-Denver winner vs. Northwestern-Loyola-Maryland winner, 3 or 5:30
Boston College (18–3) vs. Syracuse (18–2), 3 or 5:30
Sunday, May 28, noon, ESPN

(current rank)
11Sat.14–9 WNo. 7 James MadisonHome1–0
15Wed.18–6 WLibertyHome2–0
18Sat.12–5 WNo. 6 FloridaHome3–0
24Friday10–6 WVirginia TechBlacksburg, Va.4–0,
1–0 ACC
3Friday16–5 WNo. 2 Boston CollegeHome5–0,
2–0 ACC
11Sat.17–12 WNo. 12 VirginiaHome6–0,
3–0 ACC
16Thurs.20–7 WLouisvilleLouisville7–0,
4–0 ACC
19Sunday13–9 LNo. 1 NorthwesternEvanston, Ill.7–1
23Thurs.22–4 WHigh PointHome8–1
26Sunday17–8 WClemsonHome9–1,
5–0 ACC
1Sat.16–12 LNo. 7 Notre DameSouth Bend, Ind.9–2,
5–1 ACC
7Friday16–3 WPittsburghHome10–2,
6–1 ACC
11Tuesday12–8 WEast CarolinaGreenville11–2
15Sat.14–12 LNo. 3 SyracuseHome11–3,
6–2 ACC
20Thurs.13–12 WDukeDurham12–3,
7–2 ACC
ACC Tournament
26Wed.16–6 WQuarterfinals
vs. Clemson
28Friday15–9 WSemifinals
vs. No. 3 Syracuse
30Sunday11–9 LChampionship:
vs. No. 2 Boston College
MayNCAA tournament
12Friday16–5 WFirst round:
Sacred Heart
14Sunday16–12 WSecond round:
No. 17 Richmond
18Thurs.5–4 LQuarterfinals:
No. 5 Denver

Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications


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