PHILADELPHIA, Pa. - Coming into Friday night's matchup, the talk was at an all-time high. The only unseeded team to reach the Final Four this season, Penn State women's lacrosse was prepared to compete in its first NCAA semifinal game since 1999. Throughout the night the team proved one important fact.
By Julie Bacanskas
The Nittany Lions are among the nation's best, a team that more than belongs in this group of elite programs.
Although Penn State saw its season come to an end at the hands of North Carolina for a second consecutive year, the Blue and White never gave in, competing until the very end. In a match that began with a three-goal Tar Heels' run, the Lions clawed their way back before dropping the 12-11 decision in the final seconds.
"It was a great game. That's really what Final Fours are all about - team's going on runs and competing hard and coming up with big plays at big times," head coach Missy Doherty said. "Thankfully our players were competing for 60 minutes. We fell a little short there at the end but I was so proud of how they worked and how hard the game was. I think we wanted to show everybody in the Final Four that there's a reason we're here and that's because we were ready for it. I think they certainly showed that today."
Down 12-9 in the second, an illegal stick called on Carolina began a momentum shift. An Abby Smucker free position goal, her second of the game, brought the team back within two and another quick score with 7:13 remaining made it a one-point game.
However, UNC was content to keep patient after regaining possession of the ball, aiming to let time tick off the clock.
"It definitely is frustrating having UNC pull us out a little bit, trying to keep possession of the ball so that we couldn't swing it back the other way," Smucker said. "We had some practice with that in our previous games. Florida used that tactic against us too. We just wanted to stay composed, stick to our game, not let them get anything easy on us. I think we did a good job on that."
Madison Cyr, who finished with two goals and an assist, forced a turnover, but a stop by Carolina's Megan Waters on a Steph Lazo shot with 40 seconds left sealed the team's fate.
Regardless of the outcome, the Nittany Lions showed their grit and determination, keeping close in a game they had already been counted out of yet again this season.
Understanding how and why Penn State reached the Final Four isn't difficult. They not only played No. 3 UNC, but also the top- two teams in No. 1 Maryland and No. 2 Florida. Those two games were also decided by a single point - Maryland a 10-9 loss in the regular season finale and Florida a 14-13 overtime win in the tournament.
It's time to stop counting the Nittany Lions as underdogs and start recognizing their capabilities. The Blue and White is becoming a lacrosse powerhouse and it has no intentions of going anywhere.
"Everyone's talking all week long (that) it's the first time we've been back," Doherty said. "I told the team, 'Listen, we've been here before. We've played these games all year. It's not like all the sudden we get to the Final Four we try to play a different game.' I think they did a great job of that. They competed. We didn't have too many crazy turnovers. If anything, we were forcing some of those, keeping their composure, getting some good shot opportunities in the second half. I don't think we force opportunities. We had some good ones to make."
"Seeing their composure, I thought it was a championship composure," she added. "We didn't pull it out there in the end but I was so proud of them and the way they competed - even when they're down by three goals or by more goals. They just kept competing. They didn't give in. You could see the fight, the resilience of this team. I thought it was awesome."