All season long, the 5th-seeded Denver Pioneers’ (21-0) calling card was defense. Even if the offense wasn’t there on any given day, they knew that they were just as comfortable winning a 5-4 game as they were winning a 23-6 game. That’s the reality for a team that hasn’t given up more than 9 goals in any game this season – as long as the defense shows up, they can and will win. In Friday’s NCAA Tournament, First-Round matchup against the USC Trojans, the Pios’ defense showed up to hold the high-flying, fast-paced Pac-12 champions to seven goals. In their follow-up performance n the Second Round against the UAlbany Great Danes (13-7), a team that scored 13 of its 16 goals in the second half of their first-round matchup against Virginia, DU held the visitors to just six goals as they won 8-6 at Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium to advance to the Quarterfinals for the second time in program history.
“What a battle,” DU head coach Liza Kelly said. “From start to finish, I think both teams just left it all out on the field. Albany was a really fun team to watch play on Friday night [against Virginia] and we knew they were going to be tough for us to compete against and they sure were.”
Saturday’s second-round game started fairly similar to the first round – Denver’s offense was hot. The Pios scored the game’s first three goals, two of which came from senior standout captain Julia Gilbert. By the time Gilbert’s second goal found twine, it was beginning to look like the Pioneers were going to run away with this one. Unfortunately, after her goal that made it 3-0, there was a media timeout, offering the Great Danes the opportunity to collect themselves and hit the reset button. And boy, did they ever as they bit back at the Pioneers to tie the game at three at the end of the opening quarter. Two of their goals came in the final 15 seconds to add insult to DU’s injury.
From there, pardon the pun, the final 45 minutes of the game was a dog fight. 11 yellow cards were issued – six to Albany, five to Denver – and there were just very few clean clears for both teams. Part of that was the officials whistling everything – including plenty of fouls that didn’t occur – but the reality was that there were two teams on the field, hungry to earn the right to take on North Carolina in the Elite Eight next weekend and they were willing to at times literally scratch and claw their way to the finish line to do it. The difference? One team’s best players showed up when the lights shone the brightest. The other team’s did not.
“We asked our seniors right after breakfast today and brought everybody in and said, ‘this needs to be on your shoulders today and you guys have to handle the pressure,'” Kelly said. “I think they [delivered].”
By halftime, only two more goals were scored, one by each team, and the two teams entered the break as they started – tied. It was Denver’s third-quarter effort, in a flipped script from Friday, that made the difference on the scoreboard. Not only did goalkeeper Emilia Bohi raise her game, stopping four of UAlbany’s six second half shots on goal, all of which were in high-stakes situations, Denver’s offense finally found a bit of a rhythm. The Great Danes opened the third-quarter scoring to earn their only lead of the day, but Gilbert and Lauren Black responded with two quick goals to restore the lead.
“I think they’re a good team,” Gilbert said of UAlbany’s defense when asked whether they expected as tight a game as they got. “Always expect the unexpected but I don’t think we necessarily got all the shots we wanted on attack.”
The goal of the day, though, came from Sloane Kipp, who picked up the ball after she forced a Great Danes turnover and rocketed a shot past UAlbany goalkeeper Grace Cincebox as the third-quarter buzzer sounded. The goal made it 7-5 and gave the Pioneers their biggest lead since it was 3-0 early in the first quarter.
From there, Denver was able to lean on its defense and Bohi’s goalkeeping as it had all game long to bring the victory home. There were just five combined shots on goal in the fourth quarter. Bohi stopped two UAlbany’s three while Kayla DeRose put the exclamation point on Denver’s second-round victory with a free position rocket to score Denver’s 8th and seal the victory.
This weekend’s two NCAA Tournament victories put vintage Denver women’s lacrosse on full display. No, neither victory was particularly pretty but they were victories. In the NCAA Tournament, you don’t get style points, you only win or you lose. It doesn’t matter how you do it and for the Pioneers, both of these games were exactly how they wanted them to be. They played right into their comfort zone. Low-scoring, defensive battles are what this team, this program thrives on, and despite the insane number of whistles from the CHSAA/NCAA refs (seriously, the high school and college games share refs in Colorado), the Pioneers proved their mettle on the national stage. It’s going to take a herculean offensive effort to beat this defense.
“We don’t play an easy style of defense,” Kelly said. “It’s exhausting and it’s a lot to ask, day in and day out and we know back-to-back games are tough. I’m thrilled with how they played.”
But if there’s a team that might be up to that herculean task, it’s their next opponent: defending national champions North Carolina, who survived an upset bid from A-10 champions Richmond this morning in a 16-12 thriller. And the game is being played in their backyard in Chapel Hill, not in Denver, where it would have been if the NCAA selection committee knew how to watch games that take place west of the Mississippi River. But don’t think for a second that it bothers these Pioneers.
“Oh, we’re excited,” said DU midfielder Trinity McPherson, who picked up three ground balls, forced two turnovers, and won four draw controls. “We’ve been looking forward to this one. We were watching their game [against Richmond] this morning, hoping Richmond wouldn’t pull it off so that we could play UNC. We want to win a national championship and we want it to look as good as it possibly can. We want to go through UNC.”
Yes, the challenge is massive. But the smart money isn’t betting against these Pioneers. They haven’t lost yet this year, they clinched an undefeated record at Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium, and they’re chomping at the bit to take their unbeaten barnstorming tour back to the east coast next weekend.
Lauren Black & Julia Gilbert on a 2-on-1 rush, we'll take that all day, every day.
J-G gets her 2nd of the game and the Pioneers lead 3-0 at 6:25 of the 1st.
WATCH: ESPN+ pic.twitter.com/plQB8wORSg
— Denver Women’s Lacrosse (@DU_WLAX) May 14, 2023
Sloane Kipp with the 🚀 & the Pios lead 7-5 after 3 Quarters.
Watch the 4th now on ESPN+ pic.twitter.com/IIe1QhYYfb
— Denver Women’s Lacrosse (@DU_WLAX) May 14, 2023
Top photo credit: Garrett Ellwood/Clarkson Creative via DU Athletics