Benched in Third Quarter, Taylor Moreno Returns to Save North Carolina's Season


Taylor Moreno made five saves, including the game-sealing stop with 28 seconds remaining.

BALTIMORE — Taylor Moreno smirked before she answered the question.

Teammates Sam Geiersbach, Ally Mastroianni and Jamie Ortega chuckled. Jenny Levy smiled. Emotions were light and a weight was lifted after top-seeded North Carolina overcame an eight-goal deficit in the final 10 minutes to beat Northwestern 15-14 in an NCAA semifinal Friday afternoon.

Moreno sealed the win with a split-save with 28 seconds left. It was the save of the game. It was also a moment made sweeter by the rocky start Moreno had in the game.

“Obviously, it was not my day. And that’s completely OK,” Moreno said. “I think one of the things I’ve worked on in my time at Carolina is how to mentally handle situations like that.”

Northwestern began the game with a fury that appeared to catch North Carolina off guard. The Wildcats defense blitzed one of the nation’s stingiest and most disciplined defenses for a 6-0 lead after the first quarter. At halftime, it was 8-2.

By the time Lauren Gilbert shot through the defense and scored to make it 11-3 Northwestern with 10:34 remaining, it was time for a change. Moreno, the graduate goalkeeper who had played every meaningful minute of North Carolina’s undefeated season, was pulled in favor of true freshman Alecia Nicholas — an Ithaca product with just over 94 minutes of game action on her ledger.

Nicholas herself didn’t necessarily change the game’s trajectory in the 7:47 she played. The Ithaca product allowed one goal and didn’t make a save (and one shot hit the crossbar), but Moreno thinks Nicholas helped the defense reset.

“She came in there and gave our defense the reset they needed,” said Moreno, who returned to the contest with 2:47 left in the third quarter. “She’s awesome. She’s been awesome all year. Her presence in the cage for our defenders was a nice reset for them. I think it was also really nice for me to get an opportunity to reset myself as well.”

North Carolina volunteer assistant Caylee Waters, a goalie on UNC’s national championship team in 2016, noticed something off with Moreno. She relayed that info to Levy. She made the switch.

“Caylee felt that Taylor needed to settle down a little bit, that she wasn’t relaxed enough,” Levy said. “That she was trying too hard. We brought her in and talked to her, got her some shots and loosened her up a little bit.”

Levy said it was always the plan to bring Moreno back in. It was just a matter of when. Ortega’s player-up goal with 2:47 left in the third period cut the UNC deficit to 12-5 and provided the perfect opportunity.

With just a bit of momentum on the side of the Tar Heels, Moreno re-entered.

[Assistant coach Phil Barnes] kinda walked up to me and was like, ‘Are you ready to go back in?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely,’” Moreno said. “I think the belief that our defensive unit had to basically embrace me coming back in, obviously knowing that it wasn’t necessarily my day. They really locked it in, and I think in that fourth quarter, the offensive bout that was going on, those guys gave us the kickstart we needed.”

Moreno finished the game with five saves, two in the fourth quarter. But she wasn’t tested much in a final 18 minutes that largely favored the Tar Heels. Geiersbach’s performance — five of the final six goals with the team’s season on the line — might go down in NCAA tournament lore, but Moreno’s save prevented an overtime period that could have gone either way.

“She’s a pro. She’s done this for six years. She knows when she’s playing well and when she’s not,” Levy said. “But she made the best save of the day at the very end to not have the game get tied again. Sometimes that’s all you need, just one good save at the right moment.”


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