“Oh, we’re excited. We’ve been looking forward to this one. We were watching [North Carolina’s] game 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.”
That’s what star DU midfielder and all-around speedster Trinity McPherson had to say after her 5th-seeded Denver Pioneers beat the UAlbany Great Danes 8-6 in the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament on Mother’s Day at Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium. The low-scoring, defensive victory earned the Pios their second-ever trip to the NCAA Quarterfinal round (their other appearance came in 2019 when they lost to Maryland, the #1 overall seed and eventual national champion).
As is the case in every national tournament in every sport, the test doesn’t get any easier from here. The Pioneers’ reward for beating Pac-12 champion USC and the upset-hungry Great Danes? A trip to Chapel Hill, North Carolina to take on the 4th-seeded, defending national champions UNC Tar Heels, who survived a very real upset bid from A-10 champion Richmond in a 16-12 Mother’s Day thriller of their own.
What are the Pioneers about to run into in Chapel Hill? Who are the Tar Heels? Is Trinity McPherson’s excitement well-founded and do the Pioneers really have a chance to knock off the defending national champions and women’s lacrosse blueblood?
Who are the Tar Heels?
UNC won the national title last year by beating Boston College in a 12-11 all-time classic. The game was tied at 10 with under 10 minutes to go and the Tar Heels scored each of the next two goals before holding off a late push from the Eagles. It was an incredible lacrosse game between two of last year’s top three seeds. But that was then.
This is now and the Tar Heels hardly resemble the unbeaten national title team from a year ago. For starters, this year’s team lost four games – at Northwestern, at Notre Dame, vs. Syracuse, and vs. Boston College in the ACC Championship game. Three of those four losses are understandable. Northwestern is the #1 overall seed in this year’s NCAA Tournament, Syracuse was the #1 team in the country for much of the year, and Boston College is, well, Boston College, even without Charlotte North.
But if there’s one result that should give UNC fans pause, it’s the loss to Notre Dame. The Irish were a legitimate top-15 team all year long and entered the NCAA Tournament at #11 in the RPI but for a program like UNC, that is a game that they should win 10 times out of 10. Instead, they faltered and lost 16-12.
The Tar Heels aren’t as strong as they were a year ago for one simple reason – they graduated much of the team that won them their third national title. In fact, of their top five scorers from a year ago, only one of them is still on the roster this year – Caitlyn Wurzberger. In 2022, Jamie Ortega (113), Scottie Rose Growney (76), Wurzberger (76), Sam Geiersbach (64), and Andie Aldave (63) combined for 392 of UNC’s 566 total points in 2022. That’s 65% of their entire 2022 offensive production! This year, as you can imagine, the scoring pace has slowed considerably and their offense is a bit more spread out, though Wurzberger, now a junior, and redshirt sophomore Reilly Casey pace the offense with 71 and 70 points, respectively.
Defensively, head coach Jenny Levy doesn’t exactly throw anything all that unique at the opposition. They primarily play a man defense (as opposed to DU’s effective if complicated zone) which has provided UNC with consistent, reliable results. Last year, they allowed 8.5 goals per game, and this year, it’s up just slightly to 8.6. There is something to be said for consistency!
However, in four of their last seven games, they allowed double-digit goals (something DU’s defense has yet to do this season) and they lost two of them – to Syracuse and Boston College – and nearly lost to Richmond on Mother’s Day when they allowed 12.
How do the Pioneers stack up?
Denver and North Carolina are two completely different teams. The Tar Heels, to a large extent, rely on their offense to race out to leads and then rely on their solid, if unremarkable defense to make their leads count. Denver, on the other hand, relies on their #1-ranked scoring defense (5.90 goals allowed per game) – dubbed Hot Pink (did you see the pink hats at Peter Barton over the weekend?) – to keep the opposing offense at bay and cause turnovers to give their own offense as many possessions as possible. And that strategy has worked all season long to the tune of a 21-0 record.
“Our defense really gives a lot of teams problems,” DU head coach Liza Kelly said after the victory over UAlbany. “USC is one of the more skilled, faster-paced teams that we’ve played. Albany is a pretty heavy, 1v1 team. I think UNC is kind of a combination of that. Our job, every game, is to give our attack more opportunities with the ball.”
While the defense is the focal point of Kelly’s team, don’t discount Denver’s offensive abilities. They only scored 18 goals over the course of their first two NCAA Tournament games but on the season, they’re averaging nearly 12.5 per game (UNC is at 14.6, for comparison’s sake) and have shown a great ability to rack up the goals when given the opportunity. In fact, Sunday’s game was the first time they scored fewer than 10 goals since their 8-7 victory at Maryland in early March. Sunday’s Second Round victory snapped their streak of 14-straight games with double-digit goals (yes, that includes the 13-8 victory over Boston College).
Senior captain Julia Gilbert is Denver’s offensive focal point at attack. She has 64 points this season, 56 of which are goals. Her ability to find the back of the net has been on full display all season long as she’s averaging nearly three goals per game. Not bad for a team that relies on its defense to win its games. But after Gilbert, freshman phenom Ryan Dineen and burgeoning sophomore superstar Lauren Black have provided plenty of offensive punch of their own. Dineen has established herself as not only a great scorer with 29 goals but as an excellent facilitator as well with 25 assists. Black, for her part, has a game molded in Gilbert’s image as she has 37 goals and 44 total points.
The Bottom Line
Again, Denver is a completely different team than UNC. Where their First Round game was a matchup of similarities when Denver topped Southern Cal 10-7, tomorrow afternoon’s Elite Eight matchup will be a game of severe contrast. What it may come down to is who ends up touching the ball more. In other words, whoever wins the most draw controls and forces more turnovers is probably going to win the game.
If that sounds like a game that plays to Denver’s strengths, you’d be absolutely correct. In both of those statistics, Denver has the edge over the Tar Heels. Draw controls: UNC has won 299 of 534 (56.0%) while Denver has won 291 of 463 (62.9%). Caused Turnovers: UNC has 125 and Denver has 265. Some of that could be explained away by UNC’s tougher overall schedule but the fact remains that Denver has been among the best teams in the country because of their ability to control the game with their draw control and defensive prowess.
If Denver is going to get past UNC and earn their first-ever trip to Championship Weekend (in Cary, only about a 30-minute drive from Chapel Hill), the Pioneers are going to have to play to their strengths and dominate the possession game. Junior draw specialist Abby Jenkins needs to have one of her best games of the season and rely on her teammates like McPherson and Sam Thacker on the circle to win as many possessions off the draw as possible. If they don’t, though, the good news is the nation’s best defense and First Team All-BIG EAST goalkeeper Emilia Bohi will be there to bail them out if needed.
If it’s a low-scoring game, Denver will have the edge. But if it gets into a shootout and UNC gets the best of the Pios’ defense, it could play right into the Tar Heels’ hands. The good news? Denver hasn’t been in an offensive shootout at all this year and there’s no reason to expect it to happen tomorrow.
In the end, Denver is a team led by its senior class and they are deep with experience, especially among their leaders all over the field. UNC, after graduating so many of its national champion leaders, is young. They’re a great, talented team as they always are, but they’re young and inexperienced. In games like this, when you’re in a tight game, experience almost always wins out.
The Pioneers are excited to play North Carolina as they should be. They’re going back to the east coast where they’ve already had plenty of success this season and will have the eyes of the sport on them. After the disrespect the NCAA Tournament selection committee showed them as the only unbeaten team in the country, they have plenty to show and prove to the east coast lacrosse establishment.
Yes, this game should have been held at Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium tomorrow afternoon if the committee had actually watched the Pioneers at all this season and acknowledged that elite women’s lacrosse does exist west of the Mississippi River. But as the Pioneers have done all season, all they can do is play the schedule they’re given.
As Liza Kelly has preached all postseason, “Anyone, anywhere.” First, it was USC and UAlbany in Denver. Now, it’s North Carolina in Chapel Hill (at 3pm MT tomorrow afternoon on ESPNU). It doesn’t matter who’s in front of them. These Pioneers expect to win a national title and in their minds, North Carolina – complete with its shining strength of schedule and four losses – represents nothing more than their next victory.
Top photo of DU midfielder Trinity McPherson credit: Garrett Ellwood/Clarkson Creative Photography via Denver Athletics