CHESTER, Pa. — The chanting inside the North Carolina locker room grew louder and louder, which only deepened the pain for Maryland’s Taylor Cummings. Tears streamed from her eyes as she stepped to the dais for her postgame news conference and searched for the words to describe the Terrapins’ stunning 13-7 loss in Sunday’s Division I women’s lacrosse national championship. The grueling endeavor was briefly interrupted when the Tar Heels rocked the bowels of Talen Energy Stadium by jubilantly singing “Dog Days Are Over,” a popular hit by the band Florence + the Machine.
“Good for them,” Maryland Coach Cathy Reese said as the singing caused an awkward pause in the interview room.
“Let’s keep it rolling,” Cummings eventually replied over the music, unable to bear any more torment after the final game of her illustrious college career. Cummings and the rest of her senior teammates had entered the day with an 88-3 career record over four years. The Terrapins have long been the gold standard in the sport, themselves a machine-like program that was looking for its third consecutive national championship win.
But North Carolina, a proud program in its own right, refused to bow down and outplayed Maryland from the onset. Led by three goals from Molly Hendrick and 14 saves from goalkeeper Megan Ward, the Tar Heels won their first title since 2013, when they beat Maryland in a triple-overtime classic in the final. Sunday’s affair never provided that kind of drama.
“I’m so proud of my team and the fight we put in today. We played against a really good Carolina team,” Cummings said, “and they’re better.”
It was a stunning conclusion for Maryland (22-1), which hadn’t lost since May 2015 and was making its eighth consecutive Final Four appearance. After it took a quick 1-0 lead on a goal by junior Zoe Stukenberg less than two minutes into the game, Maryland never looked the same. It was floored by a hungry-looking North Carolina bunch that played as if last year’s 9-8 title-game loss to the Terrapins still stung. The Tar Heels, who had handed Maryland’s senior class two of those three previous losses, had blown a second-half lead in the same stadium last May and ultimately watched Maryland celebrate at midfield.
They wouldn’t let it happen again Sunday, when everything felt different, from the noon starting time to the way Maryland’s defense buckled early on. After Stukenberg’s first goal, North Carolina answered with six in a row of its own, peppering Maryland’s freshman goalkeeper, Megan Taylor, at every turn. North Carolina’s defense, meanwhile, swarmed and never allowed the country’s most productive offense to find a rhythm. Maryland had averaged 17 goals in three NCAA tournament games this month while giving up just 6.67, but it struggled to solve Ward. An Annapolis native, she helped keep Maryland scoreless for a 19-minute 19-second stretch in the first half; Maryland scored seven goals on just 28 shots.
“Megan Ward played a great game. We were 7 for 28. That might be my worst shooting game all year,” Reese said. “And we sure picked a day to don it on, didn’t we?”
The most frustrating sequence came with just over 11 minutes remaining and Maryland trailing by four goals. After junior Caroline Wannen’s rocket hit the crossbar, Maryland regained possession and swung the ball to Cummings. Looking determined to will her team back into the game, the two-time Tewaaraton Award winner bull-rushed her way to the net for a shot attempt but was denied by Ward on an acrobatic save.
The drought was broken up by two goals late in the first half by Megan Whittle that re-energized Maryland’s sideline. The momentum continued with just 13 seconds left before intermission, when freshman Caroline Steele beat Ward with a behind-the-back goal that sent the stadium into a frenzy.
Maryland continued to ride that wave of energy through the early stages of the second half, trimming the lead to 7-5 after Whittle completed her hat trick with 25:15 remaining. Cummings then pulled her team within one goal, scoring in transition following a North Carolina turnover. She slammed her stick down, almost in defiance, and it looked reminiscent of last year’s rally that had won the program its second consecutive title.
“I think that was our shot,” Cummings said, “and we kind of missed it.”
Maryland had entered the season with just five starters returning and a host of questions to address, which the team leveraged into motivation. The Terrapins had experience and depth issues all over the field, including in the back end, and Reese entered this weekend’s Final Four with a sliver of concern about how her younger players would respond on such a stage.
“At the end of the day, in all of this, you can’t let 60 minutes define you,” Reese said later.
It was the lowest-scoring output of the season for Maryland, which also hadn’t given up more than nine goals in a game all year. That threshold was crossed after North Carolina’s Aly Messinger and Carly Reed scored 15 seconds apart followed by a Hendrick finish to make it 10-6 with 13:31 remaining. Maryland had embarked on another rare, long scoring drought at that point. The Terrapins didn’t score again until Steele cut the lead to 12-7 with 9:59 to play, the final goal of their season.
It was a surreal scene on the banks of the Delaware River after it was finally over, when boats sped by and fireworks cracked off as the Tar Heels celebrated at the center. Cummings and the rest of her teammates walked slowly off the field a few minutes later, their heads bowed as they retreated to the locker room to face the music.