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Friday, April 19, 2024
The Observer


Irish make history with bounce-back win in Chapel Hill

Irish notch first road win against North Carolina in program history

Beating Northwestern could be the spark that galvanizes Notre Dame women’s lacrosse to breakthrough championship season, just like the year the men’s team had a season ago. But it was hard to feel that way after the Irish scored just three times in the second half in an upset loss at home to No. 4 Syracuse. That could be the loss that symbolizes that this season will be yet another so close, but yet so far season where their championship ambitions come up short.

The jury is still out on which way things will go for Christine Halfpenny’s group. But the Irish made one heck of a statement in their first contest against the North Carolina Tar Heels since losing to the Orange. Not only are the Tar Heels a top-10 team themselves — the third the Irish have faced in six games — but Saturday’s showdown was Notre Dame’s first road game of the season. A year ago, the Irish were just 4-4 on the road, which stood in stark contrast to their stellar 8-1 record playing at Loftus Sports Center and Arlotta Stadium.

In the present, the Irish are perfect away from home, recording their first ever in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Earning their second win against ranked competition this year required the Irish to play a much different game than any they had been in all season. Each of Notre Dame’s first six games of the season featured at least 25 combined goals, with the Irish notching a then-season-low 14 against both No. 3 Northwestern and Syracuse. Saturday’s contest at Dorrance Field had just 12 tallies — total.

Almost half of them (five) came in the second quarter alone. That would hardly seem like an offensive burst in most lacrosse games, but it especially stuck out after the defense-heavy opening 15 minutes. It took over 11 minutes for the scoreboard to change, and even then, the Irish were on the power-play and got a free-position shot to score the first goal of the game. But graduate student attacker Madison Ahern got it done, beating former Tewaaraton Award Watch List member Alecia Nicholas for the game’s first tally.

The offense started to pick up about halfway through the second quarter, with three goals put on the board in an 86-second span. Ahern and graduate student attacker Jackie Wolak went back-to-back to give the Irish a 3-0 edge. But in a reversal of how things went in the first quarter against Northwestern, the Irish lost a three-goal advantage late in a quarter. Alyssa Long finally got the Tar Heels on the board with 7:05 to go in the half, and goals a few minutes later by Eva Ingrilli and Reilly Casey evened the tally heading into the break, taking advantage of Irish penalty trouble.

Once again, though, Ahern was there to lead the way. She struck for Notre Dame’s only two goals of the third quarter, which ended with the Irish ahead 5-4. Early strikes separated by just 57 seconds from senior midfielder Mary Kelly Doherty and Wolak gave Notre Dame some breathing room. The game ended without a single goal in the final 10:55 after North Carolina got one back, with the Irish defense preventing them from pulling any closer.

In truth, the Tar Heels may have been fortunate to hang around for so long. The Irish were the better team in numerous key areas, most notably doubling up their opponents in shots (34-17). It was a consistent trend, too, with Notre Dame recording twice as many shots in three of the four quarters. Halfpenny’s team also came out on top in ground balls (19-12) and draw controls (10-5, 66.7%) while also committing six fewer turnovers.

Notre Dame did struggle to hit the net at times, recording a lesser but still impressive 20-14 advantage in shots on goal. Senior Lilly Callahan delivered a season-high nine saves, just two shy of her previous record in conference play. Combine that with the usual stellar draw control work from Doherty and senior midfielder Kelly Denes (four each), the Irish took care of business despite a lack of depth scoring (only three players recorded a point) and a rare off-game from graduate student midfielder Kasey Choma, who was held without a goal for the first time in 69 career collegiate contests.

Not only have the Irish now beaten two of their better teams in the country, they’ve also done so in near dominant fashion. If the Irish and Tar Heels meet again in 2024, the game will carry postseason implications. Performances like this show the Irish are a threat to beat anyone in any style — a trait that’s great to have in big games like Saturday’s.

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