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The Daily Tar Heel

UNC women's lacrosse loses to James Madison, ends run at NCAA Final Four

Marie McCool Northwestern

North Carolina women's lacrosse midfielder Marie McCool (4) reaches to catch the ball during Saturday's NCAA quarterfinal win against Northwestern. 

After this season, it’ll be hard for the second-seeded North Carolina women’s lacrosse team to forget James Madison. 

The Dukes started and ended the Tar Heels' season in 2018. On Feb. 10, North Carolina's season began with a double overtime loss to the team, a matchup that was as close as it could be. And on Friday — after 20 games played out since then — JMU took down UNC again, this time a 15-12 loss in the NCAA Final Four, one game short of the national championship. 

"We just expected like, “OK they beat us the first time; we were just going to beat them the second time,” senior midfielder Marie McCool said. "And we kind of more thought that since we already played them, they can't beat us twice." 

"They are just a really good team and I think they just outplayed us today." 

It hasn't been unusual for UNC and JMU to play one another in recent years, in fact, the two teams have had a tradition of facing one another to open the last four years.  

In five of the previous six contests, the Tar Heels took home the victory.  But a ticket to the national championship next week in Stony Brook, N.Y. at stake, none of that history or mattered to the outcome. 

Though North Carolina has commanded the all-time series, the Dukes jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first eight minutes. It was the first sign of what was to come. 

"We can't go down three nothing against a team like JMU and expect an “oh, we're fine kind of mentality," first-year attacker Jamie Ortega said. "Coming out flat really hurt us." 

Goalie Taylor Moreno, who had 17 saves in the last game,  gave up a goal on three of the first five shots of the game. And the early hole proved detrimental, even after goals from Olivia Ferrucci and Ortega brought the game back within a goal. Already, the Dukes had an easier path to victory than the Tar Heels. 

By halftime, James Madison had scored five more goals, including a three goal streak to end the half, while the Tar Heels netted just two more. The high-powered North Carolina offense that has broken its own records in goals, assists and points this spring started to look in trouble. Down 8-4 at the break, the team hadn't even reached half its average goals scored in the first period (8.4). The early trends of the game had already established the upperhand.

"We came across a really tough JMU team and we just didn't get into much rhythm offensively in the first half," UNC head coach Jenny Levy said, "and we needed to shift our defense around in the second half which obviously was somewhat effective."  

Into the second half, James Madison held off any of the true scoring runs North Carolina has had to take over games. When Ortega brought the game to 8-5 at the start of the final period, the Dukes responded with two scores of their own. Nearly every time the Tar Heels tried to climb back into it and get going, JMU pushed the deficit back out of reach. 

The Tar Heels outscored their opponent by a goal in the second half, but it wasn't enough. Their season was over. But in the loss two players and offensive leaders represented the year the team has had and the future ahead of the program.

In her final game as a Tar Heel, McCool contributed in some way to half of her team’s goals. She scored two goals and assisted on four others, while also bringing in 10 draw controls. After the career she's had, it was a solid performance to go out on. 

Four seasons ago, McCool started her college career against the team that ended it. She now leaves behind a legacy as one of the best players in program history who played a complete game time after time. 

McCool has been named All-America and First Team All-ACC the last three years in a row, won ACC Midfielder of the Year the last two seasons and ends her career for UNC third on the program’s all-time points list, third in career goals and eighth in career assists. 

"It's been a great four years," McCool said. "I mean three ACC championships and a national championship. Those are some memories that I am never going to forget."

"I wouldn't have the career that I've had without my teammates the past four years. They make me look good and they push me to be the best I can."  

Ortega on the other hand, proved she's ready to lead now that McCool's career is over. She led the offense charge, scoring four goals and assisting another — anything she could to give her team a chance before it was too late — but even the 2018 ACC Freshman of the Year couldn’t stop the inevitable. 

Next season, it'll be Ortega and the other underclassmen who will have to continue the success the team has had over the last four years. The loss not only ended an 11 game win streak, it also brought a close to the careers of six seniors, Maggie Bill, Bridget Curran, Elizabeth Haus, Ela Hazar, Naomi Lerner and McCool.

"I just told (Ortega) the torch has been passed as we watch Marie have her cap and gown on and leave a legacy," Levy said. "It's now Jamie’s turn. She's been a freshman under some really great leadership this year. It's allowed her to perform at a really high level."  

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Over the last four years, the program went 72-13 (25-3 ACC), and lost just seven home games. The program also reached three final fours and two national championships and brought home the 2016 National Championship title during that period. 

Now that the season is over, UNC had the No. 1 RPI in the country. It also played close games with all three of the other final four teams and proved it was worthy of being on lacrosse's biggest stage. UNC beat Maryland 16-5 in overtime earlier this year, split a pair of games with Boston College, the other team advancing to the national championship, and dropped both to James Madison before exiting the 2018 season.

Though they didn't have what it took to move on to play for its third national championship, the team still had a successful year, upholding its reputation as consistently one of the best programs in the country year after year. 

"I loved coaching the group that we had this year," Levy said. "They worked their butts off to do that and to be here."

"It wasn't our best effort. I thought if we maybe played a little bit better in the first half, maybe the result would have been different."

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@DTHSports | sports@dailytarheel.com