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Tuesday, March 5, 2024
The Observer

Irish set up for ACC showdown with Tar Heels

Coming off a win over Marquette in Milwaukee on Wednesday, No. 17 Notre Dame returns back home Sunday for an ACC showdown with No. 3 North Carolina.

After losing their first three games of March, the Irish (6-4, 1-2 ACC) are now winners of three consecutive games, with Sunday representing the month's rubber match. Following losses at No. 6 Duke, No. 2 Boston College and No. 12 Stony Brook, the Irish rebounded with a pair of home wins over Virginia Tech and No. 18 Ohio State prior to Wednesday's win.

In addition to the trio of wins, the three-game run has seen the reemergence of Cortney Fortunato as the preeminent scoring threat for the Irish. The sophomore attack — who scored just 10 times in Notre Dame's first six games — has tallied 17 goals over the last three games.

Fortunato is not the only one making a sizable contribution to the Irish attack, though, as the team's second-leading scorer —junior attack Rachel Sexton — has eight goals in the past two games, including a five-goal outing Wednesday.

The Tar Heels (9-2, 2-1 ACC) enter Sunday's contest looking to keep in touch with undefeated Boston College at the top of the conference standings; North Carolina fell 10-9 in overtime against the Eagles on Saturday before bouncing back with a 14-5 win over Virginia Tech on Wednesday.

North Carolina — the 2013 national champions — is led offensively by a sextet of players with double-digit goals on the year, including sophomore attack Molly Hendrick's 23 goals. Junior attack/midfielder Sammy Jo Tracy has tallied 21 times on the year while junior attack Aly Messinger has paired her 15 goals with nine assists to trail just Hendrick in points.

At the back, the Tar Heels will likely turn to goalkeeper Caylee Waters. The sophomore — who holds an 8-2-0 record on the year — has saved 47 of 104 goal-bound shots so far this year (45.2%) and allows just over eight goals per game. If the choice is not Waters, junior goalkeeper Megan Ward has also seen significant action for Sunday's visitors; she has played in just over one third of the minutes logged by the Tar Heels so far this season.

While Fortunato leads the Irish by a significant margin in goals (32) and points (43), she is not the only significant part of the attack. Sexton's 22 goals put her second on the team while sophomore midfielder Casey Pearsall (10 goals, 12 assists) and sophomore attack Grace Muller (13 goals) have also made their presences felt on the field this year.

Irish head coach Christine Halfpenny will be expected to turn to Liz O’Sullivan in goal again for the Irish; the sophomore has been the goalie of record in each game this season. O’Sullivan has saved 38.5% of goal-bound chances so far this year, but has posted a 54.1% save percentage during Notre Dame's three-game winning streak.

The Irish can pull back to .500 in ACC play Sunday when they host North Carolina at Arlotta Stadium. The first draw is scheduled for 1 p.m.