BALTIMORE, Md. — Dark gray clouds closed in on Homewood Field.
Lightning flickered in the distance, forcing an inclement weather delay with less than two minutes remaining in the first quarter. Thunder boomed overhead as the UNC women’s lacrosse team trudged to the locker room, facing a six-goal deficit in its Final Four bout against No. 4 seed Northwestern.
“(Northwestern) came out and punched us in the mouth early,” head coach Jenny Levy said. “That’s on me. I didn’t have the team ready to roll.”
But no matter how tumultuous the waters got on Friday, the Tar Heels never abandoned ship, and they pulled off an all-time great comeback in their eventual 15-14 win over Northwestern.
Immediately out of the delay, the offensive unit began to distribute the ball noticeably more, attacking the cage four times in 40 seconds.
“We didn’t end up scoring,” fifth-year attacker Jamie Ortega said. “But the energy shift, everyone felt that. That time out actually helped us — we came out on the same page.”
Something intangible had clicked among the Tar Heels, but it didn’t immediately slow down the Wildcats’ onslaught. With 10:34 left in the third quarter, Northwestern attacker Lauren Gilbert scored her fifth unassisted goal of the contest to take a commanding 11-3 lead.
“Uptown Funk” blared through the stadium speakers as Wildcat fans and players alike began to dance. A Northwestern upset — once an inconceivable notion for UNC fans — was rapidly becoming an imminent reality.
With all eyes on the early sideline celebrations, few noticed UNC sophomore Caitlyn Wurzburger supportively bumping sticks with Ortega as they walked back to the opposing cage.
Few paid attention to the star attackers relaying words of encouragement to each other despite the grim circumstances — something that persisted for all 60 minutes of lacrosse played.
“The thing that makes this team so resilient is our ability to trust and believe in one another,” graduate midfielder Ally Mastroianni said. “After every goal, we would look each other in the eye and be like, ‘I believe in you. You got this.’”
Slowly but surely, North Carolina began to brew a storm of its own.
After the teams traded goals to close out the third quarter, two quick goals from Wurzburger and Ortega midway through the fourth period cut the lead to five.
But still, with only 8:15 left, flashbacks of UNC’s recent NCAA semifinal losses began to merge with the present.
“As time was whittling down, we kind of just realized that this might be our last go at it,” graduate attacker Sam Geiersbach said. “In the back of my head, I was thinking about all the stories I’ve heard from (my teammates) about them not making it to the national championship.”
North Carolina needed two things: quick scoring and extra possessions. But it wasn’t ACC Midfielder of the Year Mastroianni who won four crucial draw controls late in the game, nor was it UNC’s all-time leading scorer Ortega who strung together five goals in five minutes.
Instead, it was graduate attacker Andie Aldave who secured those extra possessions and Geiersbach’s solo supernova of five goals to close out the game that whisked the Tar Heels ashore. Unlike Ortega and Mastroianni, who have been under Levy’s tutelage since 2018, Geiersbach and Aldave are transfers.
But it didn't matter whether it was a transfer or career-long Tar Heel who righted the ship to victory, it all stemmed from the unmatched confidence the players had in each other.
“No matter who it is, no matter who’s on the field, no matter where the ball is — everyone is relentless and striving for that goal and belief in one another,” Mastroianni said. “I think at the end of the day, that trust really brings us to greatness.”