Jorge Melendez/The Daily Northwestern
For nearly 58 minutes, Northwestern ruled the NCAA Tournament semifinals.
It was a game of dominant, eight-goal leads. It was a game of crafty stickwork and of ripping goals from the eight-meter arc. It was a game of disbelief, at times — after all, North Carolina had defeated the Wildcats by 11 goals earlier this season.
During the fourth quarter, it turned into a game of catch-up for NU: turnovers, missed shots and lost draw controls.
In the end, North Carolina owned the game for just one minute and three seconds — but it was the minute that mattered most.
The No. 1 Tar Heels accomplished the seemingly insurmountable: They erased an eight-goal deficit, turned it into a one-goal lead and punched its ticket to the NCAA championship game.
“We started becoming a little too timid,” graduate midfielder Jill Girardi said. “We have the philosophy of going balls to the wall. That’s what we were for the first 45 minutes. We just lost it. We went to their game plan. We didn’t play ours.”
NU, which held a 13-5 lead near the end of third quarter, ultimately fell by a score of 15-14. Now, for the third straight season, the Wildcats return to Evanston winless in the NCAA semifinal.
Yet, Friday was NU’s most dominant performance in the NCAA semifinal in those three seasons. The Wildcats lost by a margin of eight goals against Syracuse in 2021 and 12 against Maryland in 2019.
A combination of draw control victories and UNC turnovers sparked the Wildcats’ initial offensive outburst in the first quarter. Just 15 minutes in, NU led 6-0. By the end of the third quarter, it was 13-6.
The Wildcats’ defense held strong, too. Senior goalkeeper Madison Doucette, who had a career-high 73% save rate against Syracuse on May 19, followed up with a strong first half performance against the Tar Heels. She made five saves in the first half and only allowed two goals.
Graduate defender Ally Palermo said NU’s initial defensive success was a result of trying to play fearlessly and “attack the moment.” The Wildcats were successful at one-on-one battles, she said, forcing North Carolina to take more difficult shots.
The fourth, however, proved to be a quarter of reckoning for NU.
The Wildcats slowed down on the draw, winning five to the Tar Heels’ six. Their failure to capitalize on offensive possessions and the sheer amount of turnovers also led them astray.
Over the first three quarters, NU committed nine turnovers. During the fourth alone, they had eight. Where the Wildcats had succeeded earlier also failed them in the end, Palermo said.
“Towards the end, they were capitalizing on the one-on-one dodges,” Palermo said. “We weren’t able to slide as hard.”
NU also called its final timeout with just over two minutes remaining — and shortly lost the ball thereafter. That turnover was what led to North Carolina’s final, winning goal.
Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said waiting to take the timeout until then was “too little, too late,” and the team was unable to regain composure at that point. When the clock hit zero, the Wildcats emerged from the NCAA semifinal a loser yet again.
This season, ahead of its tournament run, NU went through a series of ups and downs.
First was losing senior attacker Izzy Scane, who scored 98 goals in 2021 and headlined both the 2019 and 2021 NCAA semifinal teams, to an ACL injury. Then came losses to Maryland and Rutgers just prior to the NCAA Tournament.
But Palermo said the program grew closer following these trials and adversity.
“This group came together more than I’ve seen in the past,” Palermo said. “We all wanted it really bad. We put all the work and effort into ourselves and our relationships, and that’s what got us to this point.”
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