North Carolina’s women’s lacrosse team has two tested goalies it is comfortable with using in critical situations. The Tar Heels’ flexibility on Friday helped them make it back to the national title game.
Caylee Waters made eight saves off the bench and midfielder Carly Reed matched a career-high with five goals as third-seeded North Carolina defeated unseeded Penn State 12-11 at Talen Energy Stadium in the NCAA tournament semifinals.
Senior Aly Messinger had two goals and two assists for the Tar Heels (19-2), who will play in the national title game for the third time in four years. North Carolina set a school record for longest winning streak (16 games) and most victories in a season.
North Carolina will face top-seeded Maryland (22-0) in Sunday’s final. The Terrapins, who pummeled Syracuse 19-9 in the second semifinal, defeated the Tar Heels in last year’s title game and earned an 8-7 victory in this year’s regular season meeting on Feb. 27.
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“This is what you live for since you’re little, since you start playing lacrosse,” Reed said. “Getting there to that game on Sunday is a dream come true.”
If recent history holds, senior Megan Ward will start that contest in goal. She’s gotten the nod in the Tar Heels’ last seven games, leading North Carolina to an ACC tournament title. Three years ago, she was in goal for the program’s lone national championship.
But she yielded five goals without a save in a little more than eight minutes Friday before coach Jenny Levy opted to switch to Waters during a timeout.
“We just do it; we don’t even think twice about it,” Levy said. “Meg just didn’t get a lot of support out there. That’s what I told her. We just needed to ignite a change. Listen, Meg’s been in all of our ACC stuff and she’s been in our early NCAA games. We’re super-comfortable with either. I just think our defense knows we mean business when we switch.”
Waters is plenty accomplished herself, a first team All-America pick a year ago and the youngest member of the 2016-17 United States national team.
The Tar Heels’ defense seemed more settled the rest of the way, yielding only six goals to the Nittany Lions (14-7) in the final 51 minutes – all but two goals on free position shots.
Waters preserved a 7-6 lead with a stop on Penn State’s Katie O’Donnell in the closing seconds of the first half. Early in the second half, she stuffed O’Donnell at close range. Waters’ final save was critical, too, as she stopped Penn State’s Steph Lazo with 50 seconds left to preserve a one-goal lead.
“The past three years, there has been rotation, so I’ve always been kind of ready to go in at any point,” Waters said.
Carolina scored on its first three possessions and seemed ready to roll to a blowout before Penn State rattled off the next five goals. But while Penn State neutralized North Carolina’s leading scorer on the season (Molly Hendrick) and turned Marie McCool, the Tar Heels’ No. 2 scorer, into a feeder, Reed uncorked her first five-goal game since 2014.
North Carolina appeared to stifle a Penn State rally on a Hendrick goal that would have made it 13-9, only for it to be disallowed on an illegal stick penalty. The Nittany Lions closed within 12-11 with 7:13 remaining, but the Tar Heels monopolized possession for more than five minutes. When Penn State finally got the ball, Waters came up with her final save to seal the trip to the final.