It took a while for the North Carolina women’s lacrosse team to establish its solid balance of efficient offense and effective defense.
Once it did, there was little keeping the Tar Heels out of Sunday’s NCAA championship game.
Aly Messinger had three goals and two assists and the North Carolina defense held Duke to just one goal in a stretch of more than 28 minutes spanning halftime, lifting the second-seeded Tar Heels to a 16-7 rout of third-seeded Duke in the NCAA semifinals at PPL Park.
North Carolina (18-3) will meet top-seeded Maryland (20-1) in Sunday night’s title game after the Terrapins defeated Syracuse 10-8. North Carolina lost 13-11 at Maryland on Feb. 22.
It is the Tar Heels’ third trip to the NCAA title game and first since claiming the program’s first national championship in 2013 --- coincidentally, also against Maryland in a suburban Philadelphia venue.North Carolina (18-3) will meet the winner of Friday’s late game between top-seeded Maryland and fourth-seeded Syracuse for the championship. North Carolina lost 13-11 at Maryland on Feb. 22 and split two meetings with Syracuse in April.
“It’s really exciting to be back,” Messinger said. “This is our goal every year, so I’m really happy for our team to have accomplished that goal. We’re real excited to play on Sunday.”
The Blue Devils (16-5) fell to 0-7 all-time in the NCAA semifinals and lost to North Carolina for the second time this season. It was a sour ending for a senior-dominated team; six of Duke’s starters were seniors, and they combined to score 70 percent of the team’s goals entering the semifinals.
“Relative to our first game (against North Carolina), our defense I thought played really well,” Duke coach Kerstin Kimel. “I thought the trouble was that we didn’t have the ball enough.”
Katie Trees had two goals and an assist and Brigid Smith and Taylor Trimble both had two goals for Duke.
It marked the end of an otherwise successful season for Duke, which reached the semifinals for the first time since 2011 and rolled up its largest victory total since going 16-4 in 2007.
“In our four years, we haven’t had a season like this,” Trimble said. “To have it be our senior year and to make it this far, I just think it’s been an honor to play for Duke and to play for an amazing coaching staff and an even better group of girls. Obviously, this isn’t what we wanted, but we have learned so much throughout this year.”
The Blue Devils enjoyed a promising start, shrugging off some sloppiness in the clearing game to etch out an early 3-2 lead. North Carolina scored the next two goals, but Trees tied it with 8:20 left in the first half.
The Tar Heels took over from there. Marie McCool scored nine seconds later to give North Carolina a lead it would never relinquish. Messinger slipped one in with 2:19 left on a shot Duke goalie Kelsey Duryea didn’t appear to see. Then Tar Heel senior Brittney Coppa, playing on a torn ACL suffered April 11 against Syracuse, scored off a restart 6.5 seconds prior to halftime.
It felt like a pivotal goal at the time, and that sense only grew after the break. Although Trimble opened the second-half scoring for Duke, the Tar Heels rattled off the next six goals and were never seriously threatened in the final 25 minutes.
“[It’s] a unit that’s been in the making all year,” North Carolina coach Jenny Levy said of an offense that received goals from 10 players. “It’s just how dynamic you are with so many kids stepping up and putting the ball in the back of the net today just shows what a complete team game we play and how much fun it is to do that.”
Caylee Waters (four saves) and Megan Ward (three saves) split time in goal for North Carolina for the second consecutive game, helping to stymie a Duke offense that entered averaging 12.65 goals.