As the Nuggets waded through a sea of disrespect to get into their first NBA Finals, the DU women’s lacrosse team did the same en route to their first berth in the NCAA Division I Final Four.
The Pioneers, like the Nuggets, are the Rocky Mountain team everybody refused to give the proper due… until the Pios went out and grabbed it for themselves with a 5-4 upset of defending champion North Carolina in the Elite Eight last week in Chapel Hill.
Now in the Final Four as the nation’s last undefeated team left, No. 5 DU takes on No. 1 Northwestern on Friday at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C., with a spot in the national title game on the line.
Lacrosse’s East Coast old guard might argue DU’s Cinderella story has to end there. But the Pioneers are determined to match the 2015 feat of the DU men as the first western women’s lacrosse program to win a national title, despite not garnering much respect in the Intercollegiate Women’s Lacrosse Coaches Association’s poll.
DU only received three first-place votes all year and fell from No. 3 to No. 5 in the final two regular-season polls despite never losing a single game.
“We honestly love the doubters and we love proving them wrong, and we just can’t wait to go all the way,” star senior defender Sam Thacker said after the win over UNC. “This is an unforgettable, unreal feeling — and we can’t wait to have this feeling two more times.”
It will be a clash of the nation’s top offense and top defense on Friday when DU (22-0) takes on Northwestern (19-1), owner of seven national titles but none since 2012.
Sophomore goalie Emelia Bohi and the Pioneers have the top-ranked defense in the country at 5.82 goals allowed per game, while Northwestern features the top scoring offense at 17 goals per game and the top individual scorer in Izzy Scane (4.94 goals per game).
It forecasts as another stiff test for the Pioneers’ “Hot Pink” zone defense that Kelly’s been fine-tuning over the past seven seasons of her 17-year tenure. The zone concept allows Thacker and the defense to leverage aggression and athleticism without having to worry about getting burned man-to-man.
“Hot Pink” has became the team’s identity, with fans showing up to games in hot pink “PIOS” hats.
“Hot Pink just kind of evolved in terms of what’s important to us, what shots do we want to take away, what opportunities are we kind of creating (for our offense),” Kelly said. “And every year, we tweak it a little bit and it changes a little bit depending on who we play, as well, but it’s just a kind of high-pressure style where we can go out, play fast and make mistakes, but have each other’s backs.”
The Final Four teams left crossed paths at some point during the regular season. Syracuse beat Northwestern in the season opener, 16-15; Northwestern beat Boston College early in the year, 15-14; and DU beat Boston College around midseason, 13-8 at a neutral site in Jacksonville, Fla.
Count B.C. coach Acacia Walker-Weinstein among those who aren’t underestimating the Pioneers’ ability to reel off two more victories to cap a perfect season that few outside of Buchtel Boulevard saw coming.
“They’re an awesome team,” Walker-Weinstein said. “They’ve got really smart players and they’re clearly hungry to forge their own path into history… I have ultimate respect for Denver and their coaching staff, and I know they’re going to be ready to fight Northwestern.”
Friday’s Final Four game against Northwestern begins at 1 p.m. on ESPNU. Sunday’s championship, also at WakeMed Soccer Park, is at 10 a.m. on ESPN.
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