A wall of navy blue.
Every pass, shot and nearly every inch of grass traveled by a Tar Heel was met by a host of Stony Brook defenders following the heed of one command — “Sticks up.” The Seawolves' high-pressing zone challenged the No. 1 North Carolina women’s lacrosse team, which struggled to find the back of the cage for most of Thursday's NCAA Tournament quarterfinals game.
“Their defense made us adjust every quarter and at almost every timeout,” graduate attacker Andie Aldave said.
These constant adjustments eventually paid off for North Carolina as it topped Stony Brook, 8-5, in the team’s first defensive grudge match of the season.
UNC secured the first draw and, like most of its contests this season, looked to strike quickly. But as North Carolina sprinted into its offensive set, Stony Brook fell back into its packed-in defense.
No middle — that's the name of the game for the Seawolves.
Stony Brook floats a “rover” defender, graduate Haley Dillon, in the heart of its 2-3-2 zone to knock down any pass and front every opponent that traverses the middle crease.
And on queue, Dillon rejected a lofting pass from UNC shortly following its first clear. This early possession was hardly an anomaly, rather it previewed a sequence that’d be replayed numerous times for the Tar Heels in the first half.
“She was knocking down everything,” Aldave said.
With each deflected pass attempt, came another empty possession for North Carolina as designed plays — largely centered around finding cutting teammates across the middle of the cage — began to fail with regularity.
In need of a spark, North Carolina turned to its fast break, hoping a change in pace could open up the team’s offensive attack.
Yet, Dillon was there again to spoil the Tar Heels’ plan, as she single-handedly stopped a transition attempt with a drawn charge midway through the first quarter.
Nothing was working for North Carolina offensively, something head coach Jenny Levy noted her team might not have been properly prepared for.
“We weren’t surprised they came out feisty,” she said. “But, their zone had shifted some from what we’d seen on film.”
With every Seawolf stop followed a roar from the Stony Brook faithful whose robust chants of “Defense!” echoed throughout Dorrance Field, reminding everyone in attendance which unit was dominating.
However, come the end of the opening half, the Tar Heels trailed by just one point, thanks to the play of graduate goalie Taylor Moreno.
At the break, the message to re-energize the nation’s top-scoring attack unit was clear.
“They knew they couldn’t let up or stop trying,” Moreno said.
And, within the opening minutes of the proceeding half, a new strategy was implemented to dismantle the “rover.”
Instead of trying to pass over or through the roaming Seawolf defender, UNC began to drive the ball at Dillon, putting her in a tricky situation — either leave the pursuing attacker to defend her zone and reveal an open shot at goal, or blanket the charging Tar Heel and open up a weak-side cut.
Dillion chose the latter, and North Carolina seized the opportunity.
After cutting near-side to the cage, Aldave fired a cross-field pass around Dillon to graduate Sam Geiersbach who finished from short range. One quarter later, the same tactic was used, this time with Aldave finding herself on the receiving end of two goals.
Yet, the win and late-quarter adjustments didn’t hide the Tar Heels’ night-long struggle against Stony Brook’s aggressive defense, as North Carolina committed a season-high 18 turnovers.
But on a night headlined by everything that went wrong for those wearing the lighter shade of blue, one thing is certain — just enough was done to overcome the “rover.”
“We faced the best zone in the country tonight,” Levy said. “Sometimes you don’t have to win pretty, you just need to advance.”
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