Penn State women's lacrosse falls in Final Four to North Carolina

Right at the first draw, Jenna Mosketti looked around.

She saw her teammates standing nearby.

She noticed the thousands of fans.

She took the opportunity she had to soak it all in.

Mosketti and the Penn State women's lacrosse team weren't supposed to be at Talen Energy Stadium on Friday night.

And even though the unseeded Nittany Lions fell to No. 3 North Carolina 12-11 in the Final Four, they proved they belonged.

"I thought it was a championship composure," Penn State coach Missy Doherty said. "They couldn't pull it out in the end, but I was proud of the way they competed...You could see the fight and resilience of this team."

With the loss, Penn State's season is over. The Tar Heels, meanwhile, will face the winner of No. 1 Maryland and No. 4 Syracuse in the championship game on Sunday.

Highlighted by a 5-0 run in the first half and a 4-0 run to close out the second, the Nittany Lions didn't take defeat lightly.

But UNC entered the evening averaging the third-highest scoring offense per game in the country, and it showed early on.

The Tar Heels opened with three goals in the first four minutes, forcing Penn State to call timeout.

Mosketti, who led Penn State with three goals, remembers what her coach told the team during the break.

"That we were there for a reason," the senior recalls. "We stayed calm."

Almost immediately, there was a certain swagger about the Nittany Lions.

Mosketti, unassisted.

Madison Cyr, unassisted.

Steph Lazo, then Mosketti again, and Kelly Daggett with a dagger.

Penn State rattled off a 5-0 run, setting three-fourths of the crowd into a frenzy.

The Tar Heels called a timeout.

UNC, a program that's reached six Final Fours since 2009, was frazzled.

"Look, they just scored five goals in a row," Tar Heels coach Jenny Levy remembers telling her team. "Settle down."

Levy made a swift change, too. She substituted UNC starting goaltender Megan Ward for Caylee Waters.

It turned out to be a good move, as Waters made eight saves — three in first period and five in the second.

A couple of them shifted the tide, as UNC had most of the possession to close out the first period. The Tar Heels scored four of the last five to take a 7-6 lead into the break.

UNC continued its run of form in the second period, scoring five of the first six goals.

Carly Reed and Marie McCool drove the Tar Heels. The former had a game-high five goals, and the latter had three assists and a goal herself.

After a goal from UNC's Sammy Jo Tracy put the Tar Heels up 12-7 with 14:46 left in regulation, it seemed like Penn State's championship hopes were dead.

But Levy knew better.

"If you look at their film and their scoring, they are a team that goes on tremendous runs," Levy said of Penn State.

And the Nittany Lions had one more run in them.

In a little more than six minutes, they went on a daring 4-0 scoring spree.

Penn State recorded three goals from free position shots — two by Abby Smucker and one from Cyr — to cut UNC's lead to 12-10.

And with 7:12 remaining, Madison Carter scored her first of the game to bring it within one.

"Penn State's been fiesty all year," Levy said. "It didn't surprise me that they made a run."

But all the momentum Penn State gained from that string of goals was sapped by UNC.

The Tar Heels controlled the draw after Carter's goal, and from 7:12 to 1:32 left in regulation, they played keep-away.

UNC didn't take a single shot, but stayed poised in the face of pressure and swung the ball around without much problem.

With a minute-and-a-half left in the game, UNC turned it over, and Penn State had a chance to knot things up, but Lazo's shot with 50 seconds left was saved by Waters.

Levy said the tough competition her team has faced this year bred it to handle that late-game situation, taking the wind out of Penn State's sails and advancing to the national championship.

But Doherty also drew on her team's rigorous schedule this season.

They lost to Maryland by only one goal, and defeated No. 2 Florida and No. 14 Penn en route to their first Final Four appearance since 1999.

"Everyone was talking all week long, 'It's the first time you've been back. La-di-da-di-da.' I told the team, listen, we've been here before. We've played these games all year," Doherty said.

Her players expressed the same confidence.

Smucker and Mosketti both said postgame that whenever the Tar Heels went on a run, they didn't feel deterred.

Instead, they were self-assured.

They remained unruffled.

They were in the NCAA semifinals, and weren't fazed.

"That's what Final Fours are all about," Doherty said. "We wanted to show everybody in the Final Four that there was a reason we were here.

"And it was because we were ready for it."

John McGonigal: 814-231-4630, @jmcgonigal9