It was a matchup of lacrosse superpowers, the winners of the last five national championships meeting on a field.
No. 1 Maryland, riding a 25-game win streak after an undefeated season in 2017, came in to the matchup with No. 7 North Carolina having not lost a regular season game since 2014, a span of 56 consecutive games.
That came to an end Saturday, as UNC came from behind and topped the Terrapins, 16-15, in overtime at Kenan Stadium.
For the Tar Heels (3-1), after a slightly rocky start to the season that saw them drop their opener to James Madison, this was a game to prove they belonged in the conversation as national-title contenders. Carolina was the heavy underdog, even at home, and there was a sense that the hosts would have to play a near perfect game to have a shot at beating the Terrapins (2-1).
A rough start put the Tar Heels behind early. UNC allowed Maryland to score six straight goals, forcing Elise Hennessey out of goal for Taylor Moreno while the Tar Heels trailed 7-3.
The Terrapins were controlling the clock and repeatedly gaining free position opportunities to score. Carolina, on the other hand, was getting shot after shot but repeatedly missed its target, sloppy play for an offense that had dominated Liberty in its previous game. One one Tar Heel possession, UNC had four chances to score, including off of a free position opportunity, and came up empty every time.
However, despite the offensive struggles, the UNC defense managed to keep Maryland at bay down the stretch. Several forced turnovers prevented the Terrapins from extending their lead, and Moreno made several key saves to keep the game close.
A few of the Carolina shots began to find their target, and goals from seniors Marie McCool and Ela Hazar kept the game close enough until halftime, where North Carolina found themselves down 9-8.
A half where the Tar Heels repeatedly missed the goal entirely on shots had resulted in a deficit of just one goal, a positive sign heading into a crucial second half.
Carolina came out firing in the second half, tying the game off a goal from McCool just 40 seconds in and getting numerous shots within the opening minutes. Three forced turnovers on three of Maryland’s first four possessions gave the Heels great opportunities to score, but they could never break through, repeatedly coming up empty.
With the game tied at 9-9 and later 11-11, Carolina missed all five of their shots and turned it over twice with the chance to take the lead, failing to capitalize on several great opportunities. Maryland continued to get free position opportunities and, unlike the Tar Heels, made the most of its chances, going 9-for-11 to Carolina’s 2-for-8. The Terrapins began to take back control, running down the clock and forcing turnovers of their own, and Carolina badly needed an offensive spark.
It came in the form of star freshman Jamie Ortega.
Ortega had been relatively quiet in the first half, especially for her lofty standards. But in the second half, whenever Maryland seemed to really have control of the game, Ortega was there to push the Tar Heels right back. She scored off of a spin move to bring the score from 11-9 to 11-10, found the back of the net again to cut a 13-11 deficit to 13-12, and finally converted a free position chance to push the score to 15-14 after being down 15-13. Ortega never let the Heels fall down by more than 2 goals, keeping Carolina in the game almost singlehandedly and giving her team a chance in the final minutes.
After Maryland failed to get a shot off within 90 seconds which resulted in a turnover, Carolina found itself down one with just a minute left, working against the Maryland defense for a chance to push the game to overtime.
McCool found herself with the ball with under 30 seconds on the clock, looking for an opening to score. However, McCool didn’t force a shot through the defense. McCool found Hazar streaking towards the goal, and her fellow senior scored with 23 seconds remaining to force overtime.
After winning the draw to open up the extra period, the ball ended up in the hands of ‒– who else ‒– McCool, the senior captain who made the winning plays all afternoon for Carolina.
And 43 seconds into overtime, she scored to give Carolina the victory.
As the celebration ensued, with Tar Heel players hugging each other and jumping with glee, it was clear just how big of a win this was for the players. While McCool, Ortega and Hazar made several key plays to help come away with the win, they all knew that it would have been impossible to down the No. 1 team in the country without help from the rest of the team.
Moreno, who got the win in relief, ended up conceding eight goals but had seven saves, none more important than her last which came with under six minutes left and kept the Terrapin lead at two goals. The Carolina defense managed to force turnovers and errant shots all day, but after Maryland scored with 8:42 left, the Tar Heels prevented them from finding the back of the net for the rest of the game.
In the end, Carolina didn’t play a perfect game. While the Tar Heels outshot Maryland, 46-29, less than half of their shots were on goal, and they struggled mightily to convert their free-position opportunities. They didn’t win as many draws as Maryland, and they finished the game with 11 turnovers.
It didn’t matter. The Tar Heels proved that they can beat anyone, pushing themselves back into the conversion for national title contenders and showing the rest of the country that they don’t need to play their best to beat the best.
The Heels host No. 3 Florida next Saturday, their second straight matchup against a top-three team. Behind their potent offense and improving defense, a second consecutive upset might be on the horizon.