North Carolina hadn’t rallied from a halftime deficit for a victory all season, so the Tar Heels standing three goals in arrears at intermission was no small concern.
But with the No. 2-seeded Tar Heels employing their own brand of “make it-take it” lacrosse to perfection, sophomore attack Sydney Holman scored two of her four goals in the second half and added two assists to lead UNC to an 11-8 victory over unseeded Penn State in the NCAA women’s lacrosse quarterfinals Saturday at Fetzer Field.
UNC (17-3), which won its only NCAA championship in 2013, advanced to its eighth lacrosse final four all-time and fifth in the past seven years, where it will play third-seeded ACC rival Duke (16-4) on Friday at PPL Park in Chester, Pa. The Blue Devils claimed a 7-3 win Saturday over unseeded Princeton in Durham. UNC won the regular-season meeting 12-6 at Durham on April 17. Duke won their only NCAA tournament meeting in the 2005 quarterfinals, 15-7.
Fourth-seeded Syracuse, which beat Loyola (Md.) 10-7, is the third ACC team in the semifinals. Top-seeded Maryland and eighth-seeded Northwestern play for the final berth Sunday.
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“We’ve got Duke next – all right!” said junior attacker Aly Messinger, who tallied two goals and an assist for UNC.
But for much of the afternoon that matchup seemed unlikely. Big Ten champion Penn State (16-5) opened up a 7-4 halftime lead, equaling UNC’s deepest halftime hole of the season. Madison Cyr and Maggie McCormick each scored two first-half goals for the Nittany Lions, who wiped out a 3-1 deficit by running off five straight goals, including three on free-position shots after fouls.
When Penn State midfielder Tatum Coffey caught the Tar Heels in an unsettled situation soon after halftime, the lead reached 8-4 with 28:47 remaining.
But the Nittany Lions never scored again. UNC held them to a season low eight goals – only three second-half shots – while closing the afternoon on a 7-0 run.
It was a pretty simple formula for success. With junior midfielder Sammy Jo Tracy doing the honors, UNC enjoyed a 15-6 advantage in draw controls, the women’s lacrosse version of faceoffs. Each time the Tar Heels scored, Tracy would help them regain possession on the ensuing draw so they could go back on offense.
That’s how the Tar Heels controlled the ball for a 12-minute span of the second half, striking for four goals to go from an 8-5 deficit to a 9-8 lead on Holman’s third goal of the day with 17:04 remaining.
Freshman midfielder Marie McCool, who finished with a hat trick, started the comeback for UNC with two goals, on a free-position shot and a dodge. Sophomore midfielder Maggie Bill fed Tracy for the first of her two goals, and Messinger pulled the Tar Heels even at 8-8 with 19:19 left on a diving shot that elicited a roar from the modest crowd of 343.
Holman added another unassisted goal at 8:40 to match her season high of four and wrapped up the scoring by feeding Tracy with 7:22 remaining.
“I think obviously the play of Sammy Jo Tracy on the draw impacted us greatly with 8-1 in the second half,” UNC coach Jenny Levy said, “and I thought possession off of the draw was key for the second half.”
Penn State coach Missy Doherty agreed.
“We couldn’t get the ball,” Doherty said. “I thought our offense did fantastic when we got the ball down to our (offensive) end, but I think we were down there maybe three times in the second half. Our defense had some great stops too, but they can’t be on defense for the whole half.”
The Tar Heels, who outshot Penn State 29-14, also took advantage of their ability to get open shots via one-on-one dodges, leading to four of the second-half goals.
“We were looking to dodge,” Levy said. “Obviously they were sliding to our dodgers. We were looking to see what we could get on the back side.
“It was a good set for us. I thought it spread (Penn State) out, which made their slides a little bit late and made it harder to recover, too. They play great team defense, (but) they like to keep their slides short.”
Second-seeded UNC (17-3) will play third-seeded Duke (16-4) on Friday at PPL Park in Chester, Pa. at 5 or 7:30 p.m.