It’s the premier rivalry in women’s lacrosse, the winners of the last five NCAA national championships. Maryland and North Carolina. On Saturday afternoon, the two Goliaths met in Chapel Hill.
The Terrapins entered as a heavy favorite, winners of 25 straight after an undefeated 2017 campaign. They came in, rightfully, as the No. 1 ranked team in the country. For the Tar Heels, their season opened on a bit of a shaky note, in Harrisonburg, where they fell in double overtime to James Madison.
Don’t get me wrong — the Dukes have a terrific squad this year — but North Carolina isn’t supposed to lose to CAA schools. It was cause for some concern. But after Saturday’s 16–15 overtime victory over Maryland, any doubts have been lifted. The Tar Heels trailed almost the whole game, by as much as 7–3 partway through the first half, and stayed resilient. Maryland had possession up one with two minutes left, but North Carolina was able to get a critical stop and come away with a victory.
Here’s some things that stood out from the North Carolina victory (boxscore).
Maryland had North Carolina right where they wanted them. The Terps led the contest 15–13 with 5:22 left on the clock. After a successful clear, Maryland opted not to waste the clock (the conventional strategy so late in the game up two goals), and tried a shot with 50 seconds still left on the shot clock, but Maryland’s Taylor Hensh was stopped. North Carolina redshirt freshman goalie Taylor Moreno made a number of critical saves down the stretch, but none were bigger than that one on Hensh. Moreno had entered the game after UNC starter Elise Hennessey struggled badly early in the game. Moreno stopped seven of the 15 shots on goal she faced, which on this day was good enough to outduel Maryland’s star goalkeeper Megan Taylor.
North Carolina rallied back after gaining possession. Jamie Ortega (more on her later) scored a free-position goal to bring North Carolina within 15–14.
The Tar Heels forced a turnover after the following draw on a questionable offensive foul call on Kali Hartshorn, the Maryland draw specialist, but UNC failed to score.
This time, Maryland did drain 90 seconds worth of clock, but Hartshorn turned the ball over on another close call. (I thought Kara Klages fouled her at this point.) The refs swallowed the whistles and North Carolina had a chance.
From there, Ela Hazar and Marie McCool made them pay. What a win by the Tar Heels.
The Jamie Ortega show
Whenever a new lacrosse season begins, it’s difficult to tell which highly touted freshmen will be able to translate their games to the next level. Sometimes you have freaks like Tehoka Nanticoke, the prodigy for the Albany men’s team, who immediately become national superstars from day one. And sometimes you have players that take a bit longer to develop.
If Jamie Ortega’s performance for the Tar Heels on Saturday was any indication, she’s a stud attacker already. The No. 1 incoming freshman, according to Inside Lacrosse, played high school ball on Long Island at Middle Country, where she broke Shannon Gilroy’s all-time career New York State points record. The 5-foot-5 lefty has the vision and stickwork of a Kylie Ohlmiller type attacker, and based on this game, she’s already becoming one of North Carolina’s main playmakers. She had four goals and two assists in the game, but more impressive than the quantity of her totals was the quality.
Here is one example, in the first half. Look at how she draws the extra defenders, with an early drive. Then she backpedals, stick in the air. She waits, she waits... and boom. She snaps a beautiful pass over FOUR Maryland defenders to her teammate Kara Klages in front of the net for the goal. The composure and vision to find Klages all the way across the offense was brilliance, in a critical point in the game for the Tar Heels, as they pulled within a goal on their final first half possession. (gifs cut from here)
But Ortega is not known for just her passing. There’s a reason she scored over 400 goals in her high school career. (Just stop a moment and think about how ridiculous 400 goals is. Seriously.) Here she is again in her office on the right flank, with the spin move. These kinds of net-drive outside-cut spins are a staple in men’s lacrosse, but we need more of it in the women’s game, which can sometimes turn into a foul-drawing contest for the ever-alluring free-position shot.
Not Ortega... it was really an unbelievable effort. Here’s one more goal from the game. Again, she starts on the right side, with a net-drive. This time, the second Maryland defender slides over to cut off her angle. Whereas a normal offensive player would retreat and reset, Ortega has the presence of mind to stay committed to her shot and finish, hitting the far-side bottom corner,
Ortega used the spin move almost every opportunity she had to create for herself, and you can see why. She has both the quickness and footwork to create mismatches off the step. It’ll be fun to see what kind of collegiate career she has.
Maryland wins big on the free-position
It’s no secret what the Terps recipe to offensive success so often is: the free position line. Maryland dominated in the discipline again on Saturday night, going 9-for-11 on their tries from the 8-meter.
While getting to the line in itself is a skill — think of it like basketball, drawing contact, getting the free chance — Maryland separated itself for much of the game with perfect execution. North Carolina had ample chances from free position as well, but only converted on 2 of 8.
The Terrapins were led by Taylor Hensh, Jen Giles and Caroline Steele on Saturday, all of whom converted 2-for-2 free position chances.
Maryland, amazingly, has scored 22 free position goals already this season, comprising 44.9 percent of the team’s overall goal scoring. Last season, when the Terps scored a nation-high 79 free position shots, it only represented 20.3 percent of their goal scoring output.
From a viewer’s perspective, it’s not an exciting trend, but it’s been working for the Maryland offense so far.
Play of the game
Okay, this might not be the play of the game, but I wanted to find a way to highlight the brilliance of Ela Hazar, the senior. Hazar, a Massachusetts native, is soon to become the Tar Heels all-time assists leader, but on this play she scores herself.
Watch the body control here as she seals off Meghan Doherty, works to the inside, and finishes all the way back to the near side, against the momentum of the goalkeeper. Textbook stuff from a textbook offensive player.
What this result means
From Maryland’s perspective, this is the first regular season loss any of their current players have ever played in. Seriously. The Terrapins entered the game having won 56 straight regular season games since losing at North Carolina in April of 2014.
Although it’s not the end of the world -- it’s still February -- the Terps will probably relinquish their No. 1 ranking to Stony Brook if the Seawolves take care of business on Sunday.
From a statistical perspective, Maryland fans should be wary of the 46 shots against and the three critical failed clears in the second half. That’s the type of stuff that can send teams home earlier than desired in May.
Sophomore Kali Hartshorn seemed to be the best player all match for Maryland. Not only did she control 11 of her draws, but she seemed very composed with the ball offensively and battled well with Marie McCool, one of the best midfielders in the nation, all game long.
North Carolina should be considered a national championship contender again (if they ever weren’t). The offensive talent on this team is real; Jamie Ortega is a legitimate superstar.
The Tar Heels have no break in their schedule, hosting No. 3 Florida next week. These non-conference tests will be critical preparation for play in the ACC, which on the women’s side is as deep as it’s been in years.