Pioneers’ Dream Run to Championship Weekend Ends In National Semis in Loss to Northwestern

What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? We finally got our answer: the unstoppable force wins. In the first NCAA Semifinal matchup of the day between the #5 Denver Pioneers and #1 Northwestern Wildcats, it was Northwestern’s top-ranked scoring offense that dominated Denver’s top-ranked scoring defense. After an encouraging opening quarter, Northwestern found its offensive rhythm and controlled the final 45 minutes of the game en route to the 15-7 Wildcats victory at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina. Not only was it their first loss of the season in their first-ever trip to the national semifinals, but it was also the first time Denver gave up more than nine goals in a game all season.

“I told [the team] in the locker room that I absolutely hate losing and feel really happy that we haven’t done it yet this season,” DU head coach Liza Kelly said after the game. “Only one team wins at the end of the year and Northwestern played a great game today.”

The game could not have started any better for the Pioneers. The ‘Hot Pink’ defense disrupted NU’s vaunted offense and forced four uncharacteristic turnovers en route to a 4-2 lead after the opening quarter with four different goal scorers. Goalkeeper Emilia Bohi didn’t need to make any saves, the defense was buzzing, and the Pioneers had the game under complete control.

Then Northwestern shifted from their own zone defense to a man defense, similar to North Carolina’s in the Quarterfinals a week ago, and Denver’s great start evaporated.

Over the final 45 minutes, Northwestern completely took over and controlled the game. Tewaaraton finalist and favorite Izzy Scane scored six goals and added two assists in the rout, Hailey Rhatigan scored four more of her own, and goalkeeper Molly Laliberty only allowed one more DU goal over the final three quarters. Meanwhile, Denver’s characteristically strong defense fell apart in the second half, allowing five NU goals in the third quarter alone, allowing the Wildcats to cruise into Sunday’s national title game, their first since 2012.

“I think they just started to get rolling,” Kelly said of Northwestern’s performance over the final three quarters during which the Wildcats outscored the Pioneers 13-3. “I thought they got their confidence a little bit going into the third, and they’re great shooters, they’re great players, and I think once they started trusting themselves, they were taking more risks offensively.”

Denver did pull back to within one goal three minutes into the second half when Trinity McPherson picked up a turnover caused by Ellie Curry, made a Northwestern defender lose her feet around midfield, and completed the clear. She then found Kayla DeRose in transition who finished the play with a great shot to make it 6-5. It seemed like that play was the spark that Denver needed to get back into the game but DU turned it over after winning the ensuing draw control and the Wildcats scored to begin their 9-0 run which spanned the rest of the third quarter and lasted well into the fourth quarter.

Where Denver’s best players showed up when they needed to in the game’s biggest moments throughout DU’s postseason run to their first-ever Championship Weekend, they did not in Cary. DU’s leading scorer Julia Gilbert didn’t score until there was just 2:13 left and the game was already decided, the clearing game led by normally strong Bryn McCaughey and Trinity McPherson struggled to the tune of 14-of-18, and even goalkeeper Emilia Bohi committed two fouls of her own which led to two easy NU goals. In short, Denver collapsed in the second half.

All season long, though, even as the only unbeaten team in the country, many questions were asked about whether DU’s offense would be good enough to support their elite defense and win a national title. Until today, Kelly and her staff were able to silence the doubters by scoring just enough when they needed to in the biggest games but the reality is their offense was just completely overmatched by Northwestern and unable to make the adjustments necessary to beat an elite man defense.

“It’s surreal and amazing…throughout this entire experience,” DU graduate attack Kayla DeRose said, reflecting on her time at DU and being part of the first team in program history to make it to the national semifinal. “I think that being a fifth-year and making the NCAA Tournament all five years is something truly special and I am truly so grateful to be a part of it. This is only the start of what our success will look like in the future. It’s really amazing to see a program out west come this far.”

As brutal as the end of the season was, it shouldn’t and doesn’t overshadow what the Pioneers accomplished this year. They entered Championship Weekend as the only unbeaten team in the country, had the best defense in the country, and made the program’s first-ever Championship Weekend appearance. Yes, Denver expected to play better in this game, but there is so much to be proud of and provides an excellent foundation for Kelly to continue building toward the program’s first national title.

“I’m excited to be back here next year with our group that I know can return,” Kelly said. “I’m just so proud of everything this team has done, and in particular the senior class. They led us every step of the way with their heart, their work, their passion, their love for all things Denver and they’ve left an incredible legacy behind them.”

Maybe the lights were too bright. Maybe they just ran into the Northwestern buzzsaw. But Denver isn’t going away. This is the new Pioneer standard.

Today hurts. Pioneer Nation is understandably sad. But the future is so, so bright.


Top photo of DU’s Trinity McPherson defending Northwestern’s Samantha Smith courtesy of the NCAA

5 thoughts on “Pioneers’ Dream Run to Championship Weekend Ends In National Semis in Loss to Northwestern”

  1. Wow what a season! And what a start to the game. Leading 4-2, it looked like we could win. Since NW ended up scoring 15, maybe the following doesn’t matter…but I sensed that getting the 3 goal lead at 5-2 would have been huge. But that ended up being where NW started a big run, instead. Another turning point was when we were down by 2, had possession, and Scane caused a turnover on our side of the field and they scored. Northwestern was THE TEAM today. It gives us an example to work towards. I’m glad we got the 2 consolation goals at the end, 15-7 looks better than 15-5, and it was nice to see the game end on a more positive note.

    This team and season were amazing. They created a TON of pride in Pioneer land. If things go as they should, the tremendous accomplishment of making it to the final four should be a huge step up for our program. Congrats, Pioneers, on a hugely successful season!!!!

  2. Like most DU fans today, the sadness of today’s loss has put a brutal kibosh on DU’s undefeated dream season, as Izzy Scane and her merry band of Evanstonians carved-out the hearts of Pios’ fans everywhere with her lacrosse stick and ate them all in six bites, one for each rocket goal she scored, to go with the nine others scored by her worthy Wildcat compatriots.

    Northwestern, our big sister school, is the best team the country, and they showed us all why today. Their defense was better than ours, their goalie was better than ours, and their offense was way, way better than ours. Hats off to them…

    So how did you enjoy the play, Mrs. Lincoln?

    Oh, the Pios teased us with that wonderful first quarter lead, but the Scane Train could not be stopped after that, and the Pios dream ended on the plastic grass of an office park in a suburb of Raleigh. That’s sports. If we wanted guaranteed endings, we’d all be opera fans…

    Yet as painful as this game was, we will always remember the complete and total joy this DU team created this year – that 13-8 beat down of BC in Jacksonville, the sprint of upset victory across the field in Maryland’s massive football stadium, and that, long, long string of beatings that DU infllcted on those big name, P5 football schools like CU, Michigan, Stanford, Louisville, Vanderbilt, and Ohio State. Then came the two Big East titles (reg. season and playoffs) that DU won in stirring fashion, followed by the great NCAA DU seeding snub of 2023. DU went out and beat of USC in a first round NCAA home playoff. They followed it with that nail-biter 8-6 second-round NCAA playoff win over Albany at Barton, and then, of course, there was the utter glory of beating the defending NCAA champion North Carolina, holding them scoreless for 35 minutes on their home field in the Q-Final when everyone back East said they wouldn’t, pink hats and all. The UNC win, Liza Kelly’s 300th, was the greatest single game performance in program history, without a doubt.

    Bottom line: This DU team was the greatest D-I women’s lax team in the history of game among those teams located west of the Mississippi River (there are quite a few of those Western teams, too).

    It was also easily the greatest women’s lax team in DU history, and went as far in their sport as any DU women’s team has ever gone in the D-I era in any sport, perhaps matched only by the 2019 DU Gymnastics Team that finished fourth at the NCAAs, and a shade better than the 2009 DU women’s golf team that finished 5th in the NCAA finals.

    That’s a hell of legacy, and this team has set the bar very high for all the teams who follow…Thanks for a great ride!

  3. I am not so sure that DU will receive a huge recruiting boost from going to the final four this year.

    Here’s why:

    1) ACADEMICS: There is no real professional lacrosse future in women’s lacrosse to look forward to other than Athletes Unlimited, which pays a few players about $10,000 for a season – not enough to live on. Accordingly, most high level college recruits are looking to use lacrosse as a helpful leg up to get into the best academic school they can can get into, and DU is mid-pack academically among women’s lacrosse schools.

    2) LOCATION: 80% of all college students go to college within a days drive of home, and the east coast has the lion’s share of potential players and most of the top academic schools in the nation to serve them. It takes a special kid to want to go that far away to school, and DU loses far more recruits for this reason than they gain. We still get good players, but most top players are still staying east. DU can’t win with a local dominant roster, either. Only 1 player on this year’s team was a local player.

    3) Look at James Madison. Won the whole thing in 2018. Haven’t been back to Championship weekend since. Look at the DU men’s program, who won the NCAA title in 2015 with the best coach in the history of the sport. Did recruiting improve after that? I would say no, actually, it got worse…

    Recruiting is more complex than just winning…

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