BALTIMORE, Md. — In the national semifinal, the No. 1 North Carolina Tar Heels (21-0) beat the No. 4 Northwestern Wildcats (16-5), 15-14, Friday afternoon at Homewood Field.
It didn’t take long for the Wildcats to get on the board first. Under a minute into the contest, graduate midfielder Jill Girardi cut down the middle of the Tar Heels’ defense and sunk her shot into the top shelf.
But Northwestern was just getting started.
After Girardi netted her second goal of the contest, graduate attacker Lauren Gilbert decided to hop in on the scoring spree. The team leader in goals side-armed a bullet into the back of the net, extending the Wildcats’ lead to four and prompting an early timeout by North Carolina.
Moments later, Northwestern again found itself with another prime opportunity to score. Sophomore attacker Leah Holmes bounced in her first goal of the game from point-blank range, increasing NU’s lead, 6-0.
North Carolina obtained its first woman-up opportunity of the game in the first minute of the second quarter. And, the Tar Heels capitalized as graduate attacker Sam Geiersbach found fifth-year attacker Jamie Ortega for an easy finish.
Two minutes later, the Tar Heels cut further into Northwestern’s lead. Graduate midfielder Ally Mastroianni side-stepped a defender on her way to the cusp of the cage, where she finished from short range.
However, UNC’s push would be answered by the Wildcats. First-year Samantha Smith’s slingshot goal from a free position chance capped off a quick two-goal spurt from the Wildcats, giving Northwestern an 8-2 lead heading into the half.
Out of the halftime break, the Tar Heels looked to chisel into NU’s lead. And such was done, when Ortega found a cutting Mastroianni, slicing the deficit to 8-3.
But the early point for UNC was answered by a slew of Northwestern goals, and opened up a 14-7 lead in the fourth quarter. All seemed to be lost for the Tar Heels.
Yet, Geiersbach had other plans.
Spinning and twisting her way to the cage, the graduate attacker went on a tear. After leading a 7-0 charge, the game was tied with just over two minutes remaining in the game.
Then, Geiersbach laid the finishing blow, notching her fifth goal in just over four minutes, and leading the Tar Heels to a 15-14 win.
Who stood out?
Geiersbach led the charge when the game seemed to be slipping out of the Tar Heels’ grasp. Her string of five goals in the final moments of the game catapulted UNC into the final.
Coming into the match, Gilbert ranked sixth nationally in goals scored this year with 74. And, she lived up to her ranking, gearing up side-arm, point-blank and isolation goals on her way to netting five goals.
When was it decided?
From the first draw, Northwestern looked to be the more aggressive team. Whether it was face guarding graduate attacker Andie Aldave or confident shots from the eight-meter mark, the Wildcats looked to push the top-ranked Tar Heels to their limits.
And when a Northwestern win appeared inevitable, the Tar Heels went on a run for the ages. Behind the fiery stick of Geiersbach, the West Babylon, N.Y. native scored four goals in the Tar Heels’ 7-0 run and tied the game up with just over two minutes remaining in the game.
With the game clock ticking down, it was Geiersbach again who found the back of the cage, which proved to be the game winner.
Why does it matter?
With the win, the Tar Heels move on to the programs first national championship since 2016. Likewise, the comeback efforts displayed by UNC late in the fourth quarter should carry a lot of momentum for North Carolina heading into the title game.
When do they play next?
The comeback victory propels the Tar Heels into the title game. North Carolina will play the winner of Boston College and Maryland on Sunday at noon.