A Comeback for the Ages: An Oral History of North Carolina vs. Northwestern

When North Carolina and Northwestern drew one another in the final four, the 7,694 fans at Homewood Field and hundreds of thousands more watching on TV knew it would be a dogfight.

UNC had lost in the NCAA semifinals in three straight seasons, including to Boston College in 2021 — the Tar Heels’ only defeat of the year. They arrived in Baltimore again undefeated, set to take on a Northwestern team trying to win its first title in 10 years without Tewaaraton finalist Izzy Scane, who tore her ACL before Christmas.

But no one expected what unfolded over the next three hours and 55 minutes.

A shock-to-the-system start, a 90-minute lightning delay, redemption for one of the nation’s best goalies, an unlikely heroine and one of the biggest comebacks in NCAA tournament history.

Months later, the thrill of victory and agony of defeat were still all too fresh for the people who were on the field that day. This is an oral history of the undisputed game of the year.

Taylor Moreno, UNC sixth-year goalie: We had been together for the last five years, and we felt that heartbreak. We said, “This is it. No matter what, we are going to give it everything we have until the last buzzer sounds.”

Lauren Gilbert, Northwestern fifth-year attacker: You come back for your fifth year to win. You have unfinished business. You want to get Northwestern back to that championship status. It was five years in the making for us.

Sam Geiersbach, UNC attacker and graduate transfer from Richmond: My role was just to see what was in front of me and not necessarily do anything too crazy, to help others by feeding the ball into the middle.

Shelby Fredericks, Northwestern assistant coach: UNC is very hard to scout. They have so many weapons. The players who aren’t the core players can thrive because those other players are getting so much attention. That’s the way their offense is built.

Madison Doucette, Northwestern senior goalie: How much did I know about Sam [Geiersbach]? Not as much as I do now, obviously. We knew she was a transfer, that she was extremely powerful. But every one of their offensive players need to be scouted to an immense degree.

Gilbert: Going into that game, we talked a lot about breaking their spirit early. We wanted to be patient and look for the open looks. When we started working, we really started feeding off of each other.

“How much did I know about Sam [Geiersbach]? Not as much as I do now.”

— Madison Doucette

Fredericks: Shots were falling. We were being aggressive. We were pressing. We were dodging hard. … We had the momentum.

Moreno: I had the fear that I was going to end my career getting blown out in a final four, and I had come back for the sole reason of getting back there.

Ally Mastroianni, UNC fifth-year midfielder: I don’t think any one of us was expecting that to be the start of the game. When they came out and were up 6-0 in the first quarter and 3-0 in the first few minutes, it was a shock to the system.

Moreno: We got emotional in the locker room during the lightning delay. We needed to dig deep into our internal mantra and reassess what we were feeling. We were playing very individually because we were all in our own heads.

Doucette: I’ve been asked if [the delay] was why we lost. If that were the case, we would have lost in the second quarter, but we grew the margin. It was a cool chance for us to take a step back, be together and enjoy that moment.

Kelly Amonte Hiller, Northwestern head coach: I don’t think it was a turning point, but it made the day a lot longer. It did have an impact, but not immediately. We kept our momentum. But as the game wore down, we wore down physically and emotionally.

Geiersbach: Maybe we didn’t come out of the rain delay physically on fire, but our mindset changed drastically. There were smiles all over the field, no matter what was happening. We had each other’s backs.

Jenny Levy, UNC head coach: It was 11-3 in the third quarter. Assistant coach Phil Barnes, who trains Taylor [Moreno], felt like she needed to come out, reset and go back in.

Alecia Nicholas, UNC freshman goalie: I didn’t think I was going to go into that game, but I was prepared. It was definitely a shocker when Phil came to me and said, “Get warmed up.” Then, they scored two quick goals. I got about 30 seconds of a warmup before they were like, “OK, Alecia, you’re in.” I was like, “You know what? I’ve got nothing to lose.”

Moreno: The thing that helped me was when Phil Barnes immediately came up to me and said, “You are going back in.” That reassurance he gave me was what I needed to reset myself instead of worrying.

Gilbert: That was the ultimate we-are-breaking-their-spirit moment. It wasn’t a feeling of comfort but more of a feeling that we needed to put our foot on the gas because it was working.

Moreno: When I went back in at the end of the third quarter, the first thing I was thinking when I went back in was, “All you need to do is make one save.” They immediately scored a goal on me. Then, we went man-down, and I was like, “Taylor, this is our chance.” I remember it vividly. It was an off-stick-side, low rip from Jill Girardi when they were man-up. As soon as I made that save, I was like, “We’re back in it.”

Levy: In the beginning of the fourth quarter, we were down 13-6. We wanted to change our pressure and go for it. I also thought Northwestern looked a little tired, and we looked like we played possum for three quarters. We started creating turnovers in the midfield. Elizabeth Hillman was brilliant. Caitlyn Wurzburger had a great back-check on a double team with Hillman.

Gilbert: We lost our confidence with ball handling. We let a couple of mistakes snowball into a ton of mistakes.

Fredericks: To me, the turning point was when Andie Aldave got in there on the draw in the fourth quarter. She was getting the ball away from Jill. It felt like tides were turning. The draw dictates so much of the momentum. To score, go back, win a draw. Score, go back, win a draw. It’s a momentum swinger.

Levy: The first goal was Wurzburger to make it 14-8 and then Jamie on a low-crease [14-9]. There was a feed from Jamie to Scottie [Rose Growney]. Then, Sam took off. We were down four, and I thought, “We can win this game.”

Mastroianni: You could feel the shift in the momentum. I think the entire stadium could feel it. We’ve practiced being down five or six in practice. Have we practiced being down by seven or eight? No. Once we got within five goals, we were like, “We can do this. We can absolutely do this.”

Ally Palermo, Northwestern fifth-year defender: I wasn’t comfortable at all. I called the defense in and said, “This is not OK.”

Geiersbach: Everyone was so tired. I thought, “Maybe it’s my turn to test the waters.” After my first or second, I realized they weren’t sliding to me. I don’t want to say I took it personally, but that’s something I took personally. I was like, “If they aren’t going to slide to me, I’ll keep taking it.”  It was kind of like, “OK, great, let’s see if they are going to regret this or not.”

Palermo: We needed to make some adjustments match-up-wise. But if we pulled some of our other girls off their top players, they probably would’ve scored, too. Their depth beat us.


Gilbert: I’m on the draw circle, and I have to do my part and win those 50-50 balls. But I felt helpless. I’m standing at the restraining line watching this thing derail. It’s hard to describe. It was an out-of-body experience. I went from the highest high to the lowest of lows in the span of 20 minutes.

Palermo: The huddles were frustrating. We lost the sense of urgency to make the little plays and finish out the game.

Mastroianni: The stadium was packed and loud, but we couldn’t hear anything but each other in those huddles. Our heads were all touching each other. There was nothing that was going to come into that inner circle. It was, “I believe in you.”

Gilbert: When they tied it, and we called timeout, I was definitely internally panicking, thinking, “How did we just lose that lead? What have we done? It’s actually tied.” But we were like, “We can still put the ball in the back of the net if we win the draw. A win is a win.”

Geiersbach: After I scored my fifth and we took the lead with a minute left, I remember saying, “It’s not over. It’s not over yet. It’s not over until the clock says zero.”

Doucette: We had scored 14 goals on them. We knew we could do it again. We focused on winning the draw.

Levy: They won the draw, but we got the stop.

Moreno: When I went to clear it out, it was a hesitant pass. I didn’t mean to throw it, but I totally threw it, and it landed right into Lauren’s stick.

Gilbert: The ball literally dropped into my stick. It was crazy. I was like, “Oh my God, I have the ball.”

Levy: I saw it get tossed to their team, and I was like, “There’s no way we just did that.”

Moreno: Julia Dorsey made a huge heads-up play by standing on the top of the eight. Lauren Gilbert had to pick a side versus coming at me right down the middle. Dorsey decreased her shooting angle.

Gilbert: I went high-to-low, which is my typical shot. Maybe I rushed it. I probably had time to throw another fake, which is tough to sit with when it’s the last shot of your career. She made a great save.

Moreno: I was like, “I hope this just hits one part of my body right now.” It did. It felt really good coming up with that, especially knowing it was my mistake prior.

Gilbert: Props to her for getting pulled out of the game, coming back in and making that save. It was a great attacker against a great goalie, and she won that battle.

Geiersbach: The last celebration was just the most heartfelt embrace. Every single person, whether you were on the field or not, played such an important role. That’s why I came here — to win.

Gilbert: Utter heartbreak and devastation. It was unbearable. I’m still not totally over it. For everything to fall apart in a matter of minutes was impossible to accept.

Fredericks: It’s a privilege to feel that heartbreak. I know that is a weird phrase. We were part of something so unbelievably special. They had the opportunity to give their hearts much bigger than themselves, and they chose to do that.

Levy: There is a great story about never giving up, extreme preparation, belief in each other and a great culture can lead to great success, not just on the field but anything in life. A group of very normal, hard-working people can achieve something extraordinary together, and I think that story can be told as lessons for all sorts of industries and teams.

Geiersbach: My friend’s mom is a teacher, and she told me that she played the end of this game in her classroom to teach her kids about never giving up.

Nicholas: I work as a hostess. [A customer] asked me, “Did you watch the North Carolina and Northwestern game?” And I was like, “Yeah, I played in it.” More and more people are watching the sport and realizing how intense and fun it can be.”

Gilbert: I didn’t realize it in the moment, but the game impacted people. I’m grateful I got to be a part of that. I feel like I got to put my best self on display. It’s hard to come by those opportunities as a female athlete. I hope that was an inspiration to female athletes everywhere.