The North Carolina women's lacrosse team knew it would have its hands full defensively when it faced off against Florida in the second round of the NCAA Tournament Sunday.
Coming into the game, the Gators boasted an attack that tallied 16 goals per contest, the best mark in the NCAA.
So when the Tar Heels needed to lock down Florida's high powered offense, they turned to their veteran defenders, who would hold the Gators to six goals and lead the team to an 11-6 victory.
"(The defense) collectively maybe doesn't show up in stats like ground balls and caused turnovers, but we've consistently been tested and proven that we have top talent on this team," Coach Jenny Levy said.
As the game opened, it was Courtney Waite who was tasked with marking the nation's leading scorer in Shannon Gilroy, something many defenders before her had failed to accomplish.
But the senior defender held her own, and by the time Gilroy finally broke through for her first goal on a free-position shot, the Tar Heels had already settled into their game plan on both sides of the ball.
Offensively the Tar Heels played the way that had helped them earn a regular season ACC title. They were methodical, they were patient and when the Gators made a mistake, they were there to capitalize.
Aly Messinger struck first for either side less than five minutes into the game after her defender fell to the turf, giving UNC a 1-0 lead.
The rest of the first half played out exactly how the Tar Heels needed it to. UNC took seven of the eight draw controls in the period, enabling its possession-based attack to take control and giving the team a 5-2 lead at the half.
"You definitely want to keep them on their toes," Messinger said. "But if you play composed you get in a rhythm, and it really helps you as a team work together and get the shots you want."
The Tar Heels would open the second half in the same rhythm, and eventually extended its lead to 9-3.
But Florida wouldn't go down quietly. Just under three minutes after North Carolina extended its lead to six, the Gators rattled off two goals in under one minute, forcing Levy to call a timeout.
"I pulled the team in and said, 'Hey look … we knew they were going to go on a run. How are we going to respond to it?'" Levy said.
North Carolina responded by winning the ensuing ground control, which eventually led to Messinger's fourth goal of the game.
With the pressure subsiding from Florida's earlier run, it was UNC's goalie Caylee Waters who was in charge of keeping it that way. In the final four minutes, the sophomore tallied two saves, including one on a free position shot, to cement the Tar Heels five goal victory.
While holding the nations top scoring team to six goals was an impressive feat, Levy expressed after the game that her defense still wasn't getting the recognition it rightfully deserved.
"I find it interesting when you look at stats from games and what we've done against top talent … this team has consistently been top notch," she said. "Sometimes I don't think we get enough credit."
The Tar Heels will continue their NCAA tournament run next weekend, where they will play Penn State for a spot in the national semifinals.
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