Lacrosse: Northwestern’s season ends with Final Four loss to North Carolina

Taylor Thornton runs away from North Carolina defenders during Northwesterns semifinal match against the Tar Heels. Thornton was held scoreless during the Wildcats 11-4 loss.

Source: Stephen J. Carrera

Taylor Thornton runs away from North Carolina defenders during Northwestern’s semifinal match against the Tar Heels. Thornton was held scoreless during the Wildcats’ 11-4 loss.

Ava Wallace, Assistant Sports Editor

Exactly four years after Northwestern defeated North Carolina in 2009 to take its fifth NCAA title, the No. 2 Wildcats fell to the No. 3 Tar Heels 11-4 on Friday.

NU did not play in the tournament’s championship game for the first time since 2005. North Carolina went on to defeat No. 1 Maryland 13-12 in overtime Sunday for its first NCAA title.

The Cats (19-3) struggled to build momentum at the beginning of the game and could not overcome the Tar Heels’ (18-3) consistently aggressive defense — which was particularly focused on senior midfielder Taylor Thornton and senior attack Erin Fitzgerald — or capitalize on their offensive opportunities.

North Carolina’s defense double-teamed Thornton and Fitzgerald in a version of one-on-one defense that the Tar Heels’ back line had not played much throughout the season.

The defense was both somewhat unexpected and well executed, and as a result, the two seniors were unable to contribute much to their offense.

Thornton came up with 1 ground ball and contributed 1 shot on goal, but she gave up 2 turnovers to North Carolina. The story was similar with Fitzgerald. The team’s leading scorer contributed 6 shots, 3 of which were on goal, throughout the entire game.

Double-teaming aside, Thornton credited NU’s lack of goals more to itself than North Carolina’s defense.

“We were trying to move the ball and work it. They were doing the backer D. It wasn’t like I was afraid of the double team at all,” Thornton said. “They did a good job of executing it, clearly, but we just didn’t put our shots away today.”

The Cats barely trailed the Tar Heels in shots for the game — NU took 16 compared to North Carolina’s 19 — but went 0-9 on free position shots, one-on-one chances on which they usually capitalize in games. Fitzgerald missed all 6 of her free position shots.

Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said botching simple opportunities like free position shots makes the difference in tournament play.

“We didn’t play our best today, we made a lot of errors and we clearly didn’t finish our shots,” Amonte Hiller said. “To go 0-9 — and if you just score on the majority of those ,we’re winning this game. We had our chances and on the big stage like this, you have to be able to be calm and be cool and finish those chances.”

The Tar Heels built up a 2-0 lead in the first seven minutes. The Cats did not get on the board for 13 minutes, despite having some success earlier this season with orchestrating come-from-behind wins but generally struggling when their opponent gained momentum at the beginning of the contest.

Senior midfielder Amanda Macaluso scored NU’s first goal of the afternoon, but the Tar Heels entered halftime with a 4-1 lead — thanks in part to North Carolina’s Abbey Friend, who tallied 2 goals against sophomore goalkeeper Bridget Bianco in the first half, .

Coming out of the break, junior Kat DeRonda scored first but was assessed a yellow card for illegal follow-through, and her goal was taken away.

Shortly after, Friend tallied her third goal of the game and North Carolina went on a 3-0 run until junior midfielder Alyssa Leonard notched her first goal of the game with 20 minutes left.

Amonte Hiller said the yellow card and subsequent momentum shift in the Tar Heels’ favor stunted her team’s chance at starting the half anew.

“It’s the difference between 4-2 and 5-1. That’s a huge difference,” Amonte Hiller said. “I think we came out of the locker room strong, but when you get that momentum squash that quickly, it’s tough, and they were excellent at really capitalizing on their opportunities.”

The Cats’ second-half bad luck continued when Leonard was assessed her second yellow card, the receipt of which automatically ejects a player from a game no matter the charge. Leonard, who won 3 draw controls throughout the game, was benched for the last 15 minutes.

After Leonard’s ejection, Tewaaraton Award finalist Kara Cannizzaro was the final nail in NU’s coffin.

The senior scored 4 goals in five minutes to put the Tar Heels up 11-3, and the Cats could not retaliate.

The loss to North Carolina makes 2013 NU’s shortest season since 2005 — and leaves this year’s seniors with two NCAA titles.

The class of 2013 also graduates some of the program’s most talented players, including Thornton, Fitzgerald, midfielder Gabriella Flibotte and defender Kerri Harrington.

Despite the unusually short season, both Fitzgerald and Thornton had only good things to say about their experience with the program in the post-game news conference.

An emotional Thornton mentioned her teammates and coaching staff as a part of what made her time at NU special.

“I couldn’t have asked for anything better or more … I wouldn’t be the same player if I had gone anywhere else,” Thornton said. “Northwestern University has been just a really amazing experience, and I can’t really sum it up.”