Denver Dethrones UNC with Defensive Performance for the Ages


CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Liza Kelly knew the exact style her team needed to play.

In what quickly turned into a defensive grudge match, fifth-seeded Denver inched past fourth-seeded North Carolina 5-4 in an NCAA women’s lacrosse quarterfinal Thursday at Dorrance Field. It was a win that Kelly noted not only panned out the way she hoped it would, but one that possessed gameplay that was vital for the Pioneers to advance to their first-ever final four.

“We talked as a staff last weekend —being held pretty low scoring in the first two [NCAA tournament] games — and we just said we have to be comfortable with it,” she said. “We have to be comfortable with a one-goal game and not put that pressure on the attack.”

After Denver jumped out to a one-goal advantage in the game’s first minute, North Carolina responded with two goals of its own to take the lead after the first quarter. 

For a defensive unit that holds opponents to a nation-best 5.9 goals per contest, Denver was not fazed by UNC’s early response.

“When we get scored on, I think we actually like it because it shows what we need to fix,” said senior defender Sam Thacker, who deflected a Melissa Scone pass and corralled the ball with 1:42 remaining to seal the victory. “Then we fix it, and we don’t let it happen again. We don’t really see getting scored on as a big issue as long as it doesn’t happen over and over again.”

The Tar Heels scored four goals in the first 25 minutes of play. The Pioneers shut them out for the remaining 35 minutes, as North Carolina mustered just three shot attempts in the second half and finished with 19 turnovers.

Thacker said the gridlock had a lot to do with the defense being “a unit, not seven individuals.” Others, however, might suggest it could be due to a color — hot pink. 

Over the course of this season, Denver defenders coined their high-pressing zone with the nickname “hot pink.” In support of the unique label, Denver fans and family donned pink hats with “Pios” embroidered across the front on Thursday — a tradition that began during the Pioneers’ conference tournament. 

“I love the idea that you can look into the stands and see your support around you,” Kelly said. “We’ve talked about how cool it would be to look up at the final four and see a sea of hot pink, and they put their money where their mouth is.”

With each empty possession earned by Denver’s suffocating defense, those in brightly tinted caps grew louder. But the Pioneers still trailed 4-3 going into the fourth quarter against a Tar Heels defense that was nearly as stout.

At the 8:12 mark, senior attacker Julia Gilbert earned a free-position opportunity after defender Trinity McPherson retrieved the ball off a North Carolina turnover and sprinted the length of the field. The Big East Co-Attacker of the Year, Gilbert scooped in a bottom-shelf shot to tie the game at 4. Less than two minutes later, graduate attacker Kayla DeRose squeezed in a left cage-side shot to help Denver retake the lead for good.

“It was just getting more shots,” Gilbert said. “Liza and [assistant coach] Brice [Queener] are awesome with just telling us to take it and run a little faster. We were a little stagnant in the first half and we just went at them in the second half.”

Kelly said Denver has taken on the mantra of “anyone, anywhere” this season. She pointed out that this year alone, the Pioneers have flown more than 20,000 miles, stayed 25 nights in a hotel and hosted just seven home games — including NCAA tournament first- and second-round wins over USC and Albany, respectively.

Yet Denver (22-0) is the only undefeated team in this year’s final four. It may not always be pretty or flashy, but the Pioneers are perfectly fine with that. They’ll be back in North Carolina to play top-seeded Northwestern in the NCAA semifinals next Friday at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C. The seven-time national champion Wildcats advanced with a 16-6 win over Loyola.

“We can win ugly, and we’ve done it all year and we’re OK with it,” Kelly said. “Walking out, people are going to be like, ‘Oh, you’re going to have to score more goals than that to beat Northwestern.’ I don’t know. I don’t know that we will. We just have faith that if we grind it out, we’ll find a way.”


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