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Defending champion No. 4 UNC women's lacrosse falls to No. 5 Denver 5-4 in NCAA Quarterfinals

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The UNC women's lacrosse team huddles together during the women’s lacrosse game against High Point at Dorrance Field on Thursday, March 23, 2023. UNC beat High Point 22-4.

The No. 4 North Carolina women's lacrosse team (16-5) fell short in the hard-fought battle against the 5-seed Denver (22-0), 5-4, during the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament at Dorrance Field in Chapel Hill on Thursday afternoon.

What happened?

A slow start for the Tar Heels did not stop them from coming out on top in the first quarter.

Denver's quick goal came with help from their ecstatic fan base, casting a blanket of neon pink hats across the bleachers. The continued aggressiveness of the Pioneers paid off as they forced UNC into two early turnovers. 

With six minutes left in the quarter, Denver was still up 1-0, and the Tar Heels could not find a way to break through the Pioneer defense. Continuing to play heavy on the left side, UNC used the shot clock to their advantage, finally feeding the ball to junior Alyssa Long for a goal. In two minutes, it was followed by an assist from senior Olivia Dirks to redshirt sophomore Reilly Casey to take the lead 2-1 at the end of the first. 

Denver's unique zone play caused some trouble for the UNC offense, resulting in seven turnovers in the first half. The Tar Heels responded to this by taking advantage of every set play, earning goal number three with an assist from junior Caitlyn Wurzburger off of the first free position opportunity of the match. Her sly pass allowed first-year Marissa White to go in strong for the goal. 

Denver had their first shot of the half with seven minutes left, but the veteran UNC defense led a three-on-one play to regain possession. Continuing their extraordinary passing technique, they got the ball to Casey, who, with a quick cut, scored her second goal. 

The Pioneers went 27 minutes without a goal but finished the quarter strong. Graduate student Kayla DeRose gained possession after a missed shooting space shot by Addie Caulk. Her breakaway play led to Denver's fourth shot and second goal of the match with one minute left.

With one more chance in the half for Denver, sophomore Alecia Nicholas came up big for UNC with a huge save to keep the margin of two goals going into the second half. 

Denver dominated the third quarter, but only one goal was scored between the two teams. UNC missed a few critical shooting space possessions and threw the ball away on the left side. Denver's one goal came from senior Julia Gilbert, off a free position assist from Lauren Black, cutting the lead to one with nine minutes left in the third.

Denver carried this momentum into the fourth quarter, scoring back-to-back goals. The first came from Gilbert with a powerful shooting space shot, immediately followed by an impressive last-second shot from DeRose to take the lead. 

Who stood out? 

For a traditionally high-scoring team, UNC only came out with four goals tonight. The Tar Heels' defense is what kept the score close. 

Nicholas had two big saves in the third quarter, allowing the Tar Heels to keep their lead going into the final quarter. 

Sophomore Brooklyn Walker-Whelch and senior Emily Nalls lead the Tar Heels defense today, slowing down the quick Pioneer's attack. 

Casey built up the scoreboard with two early goals, sparking UNC's four-goal run. 

Denver's defense was also a huge factor in their win. Sam Thacker held them together, winning important one-on-ones and a few pass interceptions by the cage. 

Trinity McPherson won every foot race for the Pioneers, even after going down hard in the first half. Her speed allowed Denver to regain possession after going through periods of drought. 

When was it decided? 

Denver's fourth-quarter performance couldn't be matched. Their two-goal streak, topped off by Kayla DeRose's lighting goal, gave them the edge. But, the interception of Melissa Sconone's free position shot with two minutes left secured the win for Denver. 

When do they play next?

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The loss ended North Carolina's chance at defending their national title, and their season ended.

@LucyThomas03

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com