UNC uses toughness to advance
VILLANOVA, Pa. -- At North Carolina, all the women's teams vie for the Iron Ram in the weight room. There are around 10 criteria -- things such as speed and agility -- and for the past five seasons, the honor has been earned by the women's lacrosse team. The lacrosse players have beaten national champions in soccer and field hockey. Still, coach Jenny Levy wasn't sure her players fully understood why it mattered.
"I finally said it to them, 'Don't you guys get it? You're tough. Let's go, let's use this toughness and use it on the field to not just play tough, but play smart and poised as well,'" Levy said. "We've really used that this year to convince them to take another step. Not just on the physical side but on the emotional side."
The No. 3-seeded Tar Heels channeled their toughness for an 11-4 semifinal victory over Northwestern on Friday. The second seed this season, Northwestern has held the NCAA in an iron grip, winning seven of the past eight lacrosse titles. The only championship loss was in 2010 to No. 1 Maryland, which will face North Carolina for the championship at 8 p.m. ET Sunday (ESPNU). The Terrapins beat No. 4 Syracuse 11-10 in the second semifinal to advance.
As difficult a game as the championship could be, North Carolina has already ended a dynasty.
The Wildcats, who didn't have as dominant a team this season, might have known the end of their run was drawing near. They arrived for a somber news conference, wearing the look of a group that had lost more than one game.
Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller wore a purple baseball cap low over her reddened eyes after the loss and listened to senior attacker Taylor Thornton struggle to keep her composure as she reflected on her career at Northwestern.
"Just being a kid in Dallas, Texas, which wasn't a lacrosse hotbed," Thornton said. "Really just had a dream to be able to play in college. To be able to play for such an amazing coach and role model and program has truly been a life-changing experience, and one that's been a really great ride."
It was the only moment Amonte Hiller cracked a smile during the news conference. When asked what she was proudest of in the past eight years, Amonte Hiller said it was her players, players like Thornton.
It was a new venue for the tournament, and it didn't feel much like its traditional Memorial Day time frame -- except for the traffic that snaked across the East Coast, clogging even the entrance to Villanova University. Fans wore everything from flip-flops to blankets in the stands as the temperatures dipped into the low 50s. A brisk wind whipped, and stadium banners stood at attention.
Senior Erin Fitzgerald, Northwestern's finalist for lacrosse player of the year, was 0-6 on free position shots and didn't have a running shot all game. Thornton had just one shot on goal and a handful of fouls.
To start the second half, Northwestern's Kat DeRonda appeared to score in the first minute, but it was waived off for illegal follow-through. Shortly after, Tar Heel Abbey Friend took a pass from Taylor George on a free position opportunity and the score was 5-1.
Friend said North Carolina, which beat Northwestern in the regular season, didn't allow the Wildcats to gain momentum. But still, she never relaxed, knowing how well Northwestern has played in the postseason and how it can tighten a game quickly.
"I remember looking at the clock and there was 10 minutes left and I was like, 'Come on,'" Friend said.
Maryland and No. 4 Syracuse played a much tighter game. The Terrapins had been up 9-6, but the score was tied 10-all with seven minutes to play. Maryland finally broke the tie with 2:51 left in the game when Brooke Griffin hammered in a shot from the front of the goal. Katie Schwarzmann got the assist.
The Terrapins beat North Carolina 14-13 earlier this season in Maryland and again 12-8 in the ACC tournament at North Carolina. Maryland has lost in the past two NCAA tournaments to Northwestern.
"To be my senior year and go out playing in the national game -- there's no better feeling than this," Schwarzmann said.
The Syracuse women will remain in the area so they can watch the men's lacrosse team in the semifinals Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.