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NCAA women's lacrosse championship 2016: Maryland faces North Carolina in national title game

The top-seeded and undefeated Terps are going for their third consecutive national title.

Maryland women's lacrosse will go for a three-peat against UNC on Sunday afternoon
Maryland women's lacrosse will go for a three-peat against UNC on Sunday afternoon
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

A familiar stage. A familiar foe. Maryland women's lacrosse will square off against North Carolina in the national championship game for the third time in the last four seasons. The Tar Heels ruined the Terps' undefeated season in 2013, beating the Terps in triple overtime in the title game. Maryland exacted its revenge last season, rallying for a historic come-from-behind victory in the second half.

Maryland and North Carolina. Again.

"Really coming full circle," senior midfielder Taylor Cummings said jokingly. "Maryland-Carolina is always a battle. It's one of the greatest rivalries not only in women's lacrosse, but in college sports."

The Terrapins beat UNC, 8-7, in the regular season, but that game in Chapel Hill was all the way back on February 27th. In that game, Megan Whittle paced the Terps with four goals and Taylor Cummings added a pair. Maryland took a 4-1 lead into the half, but UNC surged back to tie the game. Whittle's go-ahead goal with 3:39 left to play would be the game-winner.

Who to watch on UNC

Caylee Waters was last year's national goalie of the year. For years, she and Megan Ward have a played in a two-goalie system for UNC. Down the stretch, Ward took over the starting job and started heating up. She led the Tar Heels to the ACC Tournament title and a Final Four berth. Waters relieved Ward in the semifinal after Ward gave up five relatively quick goals to Penn State. The change in goal turned out to be a tactical masterstroke. Waters stopped the Penn State run, UNC retook the lead and Waters made a big save in the final minute to help the Tar Heels kill the rest of the clock and hold off the Nittany Lions. Waters is definitely a player to keep an eye on. She is an outstanding goalie.

Second team All-American Sammy Jo Tracy will probably match up with Taylor Cummings in the draw circle. She can score and she can dish the ball. She's third on the team in goals, but also has the most turnovers. If Sammy Jo Tracy can prevent Cummings from racking up draw controls (SJT had six draw controls and limited Cummings to two when they faced off in February), that would be a huge boost for the Tar Heels.

Molly Hendrick tore her left ACL last year in April and missed the rest of the season. This year, she was named a first team All-American and leads the Tar Heels in goals with 56. She was held scoreless in the early season meeting with Maryland, but she has had a hot hand since then. Hendrick might be the Tar Heels' top goal scorer, but she's by no means the only option. All-Americans Aly Messinger and Marie McCool are both crafty goal scorers, and Carly Reed had five goals in UNC's semifinal win over Penn State.

Who to watch on Maryland

Maryland has the nation's top scoring offense, fifth-ranked scoring defense and the top scoring margin. Let's keep this simple. There are three Terps that you absolutely need to keep your eye on during this game.

Taylor Cummings will be playing in her last collegiate game for Maryland. The two-time Tewaaraton Award winner likely locked up her third in a row after the win against Syracuse. She is one of the most special, most dominant players in the history of the sport. She is second on Maryland's all-time points list and is one of three players in NCAA history with over 500 draw controls. She causes turnovers, grabs ground balls and opens things up offensively for her teammates.

She is one of the greatest players in the history of the sport, and you will probably never see another player like her again. She is a once-in-a-generation kind of player. If you are a fan of the Terps, relish the opportunity to watch her don the Maryland colors one final time.

Megan Whittle has scored 73 goals this season. She has given UNC fits, scoring hat tricks in all three of her games against the Tar Heels.

Whittle and Cummings have bedeviled the Tar Heels in those three games, combining to score six goals in each of the contests. 6-6-6, and Maryland came away with wins in all three of them. You can make your own judgments. Suffice to say that Whittle and Cummings are two players you need to watch on Sunday afternoon.

While Cummings and Whittle command the most attention, the Terps can beat you with all seven players on the field. Just ask Syracuse, who surrendered four goals to Taylor Hensh, three to Zoe Stukenberg and two to Jen Giles.

"We have a lot of people that can score," Cummings said.

Alice Mercer is the third (but by no means only) player that you should definitely keep an eye on. Like Cummings, she'll be playing in her final game for the Terps. She has been simply sensational since she started on day one as a freshman. The senior All-American and Tewaaraton Award finalist absolutely shut down one of the greatest goal scorers in NCAA history in Syracuse's Kayla Treanor in the semifinal. She is one of the best one-on-one defenders in the country and she's one of the best defenders in Maryland's illustrious history.

Maryland head coach Cathy Reese knew that she saw a pretty special performance from Mercer on Friday night.

"She is ridiculously good and I hope everyone saw that tonight," she said. "To play against Kayla Treanor, who has had such a phenomenal career, and play the best 1-v-1 defense of any defender I've seen is really impressive...What a tremendous career she's had. She's fun to watch, fun to coach."

Final thoughts

"It's always a good game. Both teams are extremely talented. They both play really hard and they both play really fast styles of lacrosse," Reese said when she was asked about the finals matchup with the Tar Heels.

For Cummings, nothing compares to Maryland-North Carolina. "When the championship is on the line, it's even more exciting. People should be in for a good one on Sunday."

How to watch

Where: Talen Energy Stadium in Chester, Pennsylvania

When: Noon (ET)

TV/Streaming: ESPNU and ESPN3