UNC goes scoreless for last 35:22 as unbeaten Denver rallies to oust reigning women’s lacrosse champions

By R.L. Bynum

CHAPEL HILL — Denver came to Dorrance Field undefeated and barely challenged all season, but the reigning women’s lacrosse national champion Carolina didn’t make it easy for the Pioneers.

The Pioneers’ defense, led by All-American defender Sam Thacker, was too much for the Tar Heels, who went scoreless for the final 35:22 of the game in Denver’s 5–4 victory in the NCAA tournament quarterfinals Thursday at Dorrance Field.

The loss denied UNC (16–5) a Final Four berth for the first time since 2017 and gave them their most defeats since 2014. This will be Denver’s first trip to the Final Four.

Thacker had a big interception when UNC’s Melissa Sconone made a pass off a free-position chance with 1:42 left as the Tar Heels desperately tried to tie it.

“They play a really interesting style of the game and are comfortable playing tight games with low scoring, with lots of possession,” said UNC coach Jenny Levy, whose team was held to a season-low goal total. “I thought we did great in the center X. I thought we competed, and the things that we gave up were off of calls.”

UNC defenders, led by senior Emily Nalls and sophomore Brooklyn Walker-Welch, gave Carolina a chance to win it but the Tar Heels couldn’t slip any goals past Denver in the second half.

“I thought our defense played great today,” Levy said. “Their defense puts a lot of pressure on you, and you have to be aggressive and you have to handle their pressure and move the ball and we just weren’t aggressive enough.”

For most of the season, Carolina’s defense would have been more than enough to win.

“Brooklyn’s been a great defender all year,” Levy said. “Between her and Nalls, they’ve taken every team’s top attacker and done a really good job. I’ll take those two any day of the week as the top defenders in the country.”

The Tar Heels gave Denver (22–0) its first three-goal deficit of the season when they went up 4–1 on a goal by redshirt sophomore goal Reilly Casey with 5:22 left in the first half, but they didn’t score again.

The young Carolina team played well down the stretch of the season but couldn’t find the rhythm against Denver.

Denver needed only 54 seconds to score on its first shot, a close-in goal from Ryan Dineen, but UNC scored the next four goals.

Junior midfielder Alyssa Long finally broke through for UNC with 4:21 left in the first quarter on a nice drive through multiple defenders for an unassisted goal. Casey took a short feed from senior midfielder Olivia Dirks two minutes later.

Junior attacker Caitlyn Wurzburger, off of a free-position opportunity, passed to a breaking freshman attacker Melissa White 6½ minutes into the second quarter. Casey took a pass from freshman attacker Caroline Godine for another goal with 5:22 left in the first half in what turned out to be UNC’s final goal.

“I thought, first half, we did a really good job of ball movement, people movement,” Levy said. “I don’t know why we stopped doing what we were doing in the first half. We said, ‘Listen, you’ve got to stay patient against this defense. Things will appear.’

“But I didn’t do a good enough job of preparing them for the game, clearly,” Levy said. “The offense is on me; the loss is on me. Hopefully, next time we get to a shot at them, we’ll do a better job as coaches.”

Levy said that Denver did an excellent job of anticipating the next pass and forcing teams to be more deceptive to create opportunities.

“I thought some of our spacing was too high,” Levy said. “And I thought some of the other spacing was too tight. But they anticipate well, they move really well as a unit both up and down their wings. And the rover does a good job of marking. I thought we weren’t very dynamic and interior.”

Kayla DeRose’s driving goal with 2:03 left in the first half ended UNC’s run and cut Denver’s deficit at halftime to 4–2. Dineen assisted on a Julia Gilbert goal nearly six minutes into the second half to cut Denver’s deficit to one.

“We just knew what they were going to do, and we disrupted them and they got a couple of shots off that I think we could have stopped,” said Nalls, who had four ground balls to help UNC have an 8–5 edge. “But, overall, really proud of our defensive effort. The way we worked as a unit.”

UNC goalkeeper Alecia Nicholas made two huge saves on free-position shots in the fourth quarter before Gilbert scored on a third free-position shot with 8:12 left to notch a hat trick with the third consecutive goal of the game.

DeRose gave Denver its first lead since the first quarter on a driving shot with 6:31 left, which proved to be the game-winner.

The Pioneers played pesky defense, led by Thacker and second-team pick All-American Trinity McPherson.

NOTES — UNC has played without senior defender Julia Dorsey, also a defender on the women’s soccer team, since April 1 after she suffered a season-ending right ACL tear. … Carolina’s previous low goal total came in its 11–9 loss to Boston College in the ACC championship game. … If UNC’s baseball team isn’t an NCAA regional host, this was the last home athletic event of the school year. … UNC fell to 13–10 in NCAA quarterfinal games with only its fourth loss in the last 14 appearances. … Five losses are the most for the Tar Heels since the 2014 team went 15–5 and also lost in the quarterfinals. UNC combined for five losses in the previous four seasons (although it only played seven games in 2020).

No. 5 Denver 5, No. 4 UNC 4

(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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