Denver Completes Second-Half Comeback Against North Carolina to Advance to Championship Weekend

For the first time in program history, the Denver Pioneers are going to Championship Weekend.

Let that sink in for a moment and smile.

Yet again, it was the #5 Denver’s (22-0) defense that won the day. The country’s #1 ranked scoring defense showed up to Dorrance Field in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and dominated the #4 North Carolina Tar Heels’ (16-5) offense. The Pioneers started slow, allowing four goals in the first half while only scoring twice, but they found the extra gear they needed in the second half, outscoring the defending national champions 3-0 over the final 30 minutes and held the uber-talented Tar Heels’ offense scoreless over the final 35-plus minutes of the game to clinch the 5-4 Elite Eight victory and advance to Championship Weekend for the first time ever.

“I’m so proud of these guys,” DU head coach Liza Kelly said after the game. “I don’t even know what to do with myself. It hasn’t quite hit me yet. We talked pregame and I said, ‘Act as if you’ve never been here before. Act as if you’ve never been to a Final Four.’ It’s everything you ever wanted.”

It came as no surprise that the Pioneers’ defense needed to dominate the game if they were going to beat UNC on their home turf. DU played in two characteristically low-scoring games in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, topping USC 10-7 and UAlbany 8-6 at Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium. But even holding the Tar Heels, who were averaging better than 14 goals per game in the ultra-competitive ACC, to just four goals and a scoreless second half shocked the lacrosse world.

But even with one of the best NCAA Tournament defensive performances most anyone has ever seen, a Denver victory was far from guaranteed. After all, you do have to score to win games and the Pioneers’ offense didn’t get off to the best start, despite freshman Ryan Dineen scoring the first goal of the game.

“Definitely,” senior captain Julia Gilbert said when asked if there were any nerves on offense early in the game. “We’re a little bit of a younger attack so definitely a little nerves. But nerves are good, nerves keep you going.”

After Dineen broke the ice just 54 seconds in, UNC’s offense took control of the game. Denver struggled to win draw controls thanks to UNC’s height advantage at the circle and when they did happen to win possession, nerves took hold and the Pioneers turned the ball over time and time again. If it wasn’t for the characteristically elite play from Denver’s defense, which forced and benefitted from 10 first-half UNC turnovers, the Tar Heels could have run away with the game early. Instead, DU’s defense buckled down and held the UNC offense to just four first-half goals, two in each of the first two quarters.

The only problem? Denver couldn’t find an answer until there were just two minutes left in the first half when Kayla DeRose scored the first of her two tallies to cut the halftime deficit to two. Little did anyone know at the time, but UNC’s scoring for the day was over.

“When we get scored on, I think we actually like it,” senior defender and captain Sam Thacker said of DU’s first-half defensive mentality. “It shows us what we need to fix and then we fix it and we don’t let it happen again.”

Though Denver dominated the second half of the game, it was far from guaranteed that they were going to win the game. The defense kept handing the offense chances to take the lead but UNC’s defense and goalkeeper Alecia Nicholas matched DU stop for stop. Even on free position attempts – a situation that was one of Denver’s strengths this year – they struggled to find twine. But, in typical Julia Gilbert fashion, she showed up from the 8-meter arc right in the knick of time, scoring once off of an excellent pass from Ryan Dineen off of a free position attempt and then again to tie the game on a low shot from the 8-meter with just eight minutes left.

Gilbert’s second-half heroics – a growing theme in the postseason – tied the game but it was Kayla DeRose, an unlikely hero, that won the game with a bounce shot as the shot clock expired with just six and a half minutes left.

“I knew we could do this and I honestly knew it was going to look like this,” Kelly said, referencing the low-scoring defensive battle. “We just said, ‘We have to be comfortable with it. We have to be comfortable with a one-goal game.'”

DeRose had 14 goals on the season coming into today’s Quarterfinal matchup but none of them were as big as her 16th of the season, which sent the Pioneers through to Championship Weekend in Cary, North Carolina, just a half-hour drive from Chapel Hill.

With the late goal, though, Denver still had to withstand a final push from the Tar Heels. DU’s defense, though, never bent, never broke, and Thacker delivered the final knockout punch with 1:42 left as she perfectly read Melissa Sconone’s free-position pass and intercepted it to put the game on ice.

“I knew it was coming,” Thacker said of her win-clinching defensive play with a sly smile. “I was just like, ‘Just do it. Come on.’ It was so exciting.”

Pioneers celebrate their first-ever trip to Championship Weekend. Credit: Peyton Williams Photography via DU Athletics

No, the victory didn’t come easy, especially against a women’s lacrosse blueblood and the defending champions but the final score, identical to the one by which Denver beat Louisville to open the season, was pure DU lacrosse – elite defense that generates offensive opportunities.

“I said thank you to [Louisville head coach] Scott Teeter for preparing us,” Kelly said with a laugh. “We can win ugly and we’ve done it all year and we’re ok with it.”

The selection committee screwed up and anyone who’s anyone in the lacrosse world knew it. Today’s game should have been at Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium in Denver with the Pioneers, the only unbeaten team in the country, hosting as a top-four overall seed. Instead, the Pioneers lived up to Kelly’s “anyone, anywhere” mantra and dispatched the Tar Heels on their own turf.

And now, with their first-ever Championship Weekend appearance on deck next weekend, the sky’s the limit for these Pioneers. Sure,  #1-seeded Northwestern is likely their next opponent. But don’t for a second think that these Pioneers don’t have what it takes to shock the world again in Cary.

Anyone. Anywhere.


Top photo credit: Peyton Williams Photography via DU Athletics

7 thoughts on “Denver Completes Second-Half Comeback Against North Carolina to Advance to Championship Weekend”

  1. That was one of the best second half defensive performances I’ve seen in any sport – DU put on a defensive clinic with 16 caused turnovers and holding the defending NCAA champs to only 3 shots and no goals in the final 35 minutes on their own field. Amazing.

    And bravo!

    This DU team is feeding on the continuous disrespect shown them by the NCAA Selection Committee for the bad seed, the eastern lacrosse establishment/ESPN broadcasters, who dished out a stream of unconscionable anti-Denver bile today, including not knowing Denver’s location (“I don’t know where Denver is…I thought they were on the West coast?), talking poorly about Denver’s opponent quality –“DU plays Western opponents” (Did you even look at DU’s schedule and our league’s location?) all go on top of some bad hot mike bias and a 90% UNC biased pre-game. It was ugly, folks.

    Go all the way, Pios.

    And shove their anti-Denver garbage up their chutes…

  2. There is a real joy watching a DU women’s team shooting for a national championship. The men have done it before and gymnastics is close. Watching this team enjoy the sheer joy of winning and advancing really hit me over the past few games – and I am sure many others, too. All they have to do now is knock that door down. Go Pios!

  3. All “DU” respect, Swami: the team doesn’t need a pep talk based on ESPN commentators or eastern bias. They’re beyond manufactured motivation. A national title is two games away. That’s enough, particularly for a team that relies on a disciplined approach. Please spend your efforts on figuring out a game plan to contain Northwestern’s superstar, who averages a few goals a game! She’s pretty scary. But Northwestern should be scared of us, too.

    The game today was looking QUITE dicey at 4-1, but DU dug in to play a perfect defensive game the rest of the way, long enough to get some opportune goals and shift the momentum. That goal to make it 5-4 with a second left on the shot clock could go down as legendary, if DU can notch another couple of wins.

    The announcers–they were overall fair to DU, even seemed to me like they low-key wanted DU to win. The comment about not knowing where Denver is (west coast?): that was not insulting to DU. It was just staggeringly ignorant on a basic human American level for an otherwise intelligent-sounding person.

  4. Denver 3 million people in the Metro area and has 5 major league teams, is the reigning NHL Champion and looks like a strong contender in the NBA this year. Anybody commentating on ESPN should know where the city is. No excuses.

  5. Has to be the most satisfying victory in the program’s history by far. Showed a ton of grit to shutout of top 4 team for the entire second half (and some) and grind out enough goals to comeback to win. And to do it on UNC’s home field when you know this game should’ve been played in Denver. Awesome to see the pro-east coast bias eat it. Honestly the bad seeding probably gave some fuel to the Pios and hopefully they take it into the next round! Great stuff!!

  6. Haha, right. We’re not asking her to pick Denver out on a map, with all those confusing square states. She just needs to know that we can’t surf here.

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