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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Unseeded Florida lacrosse reaches second-ever Final Four

The Gators head into Championship Weekend riding an impressive 20-game win streak

The Florida Gators lacrosse team celebrates its 22-2 win in its exhibition match against the Scotland National Team, Feb. 14, 2024.
The Florida Gators lacrosse team celebrates its 22-2 win in its exhibition match against the Scotland National Team, Feb. 14, 2024.

Heading into the 2024 season, the Florida Gators lacrosse team had one goal: reach Championship Weekend.

The Gators went into the NCAA Division I Women’s Lacrosse Tournament unseeded despite finishing the regular season as the No. 10 team in the nation, but that hasn’t stopped their dominant run in the tournament. 

Florida won three-straight games to clinch its spot in the Final Four.

“I think this team is just built different,” said Florida head coach Amanda O’Leary in a press conference following the team’s quarterfinal win over No. 4 Maryland May 16. “They just came out with a goal from the beginning of the season, and they wanted to accomplish that goal. There was nothing that was going to stand in their way.”

O’Leary, who started her coaching career as an assistant coach at Maryland, has now led the Gators to their second-ever Final Four appearance — UF’s first since 2012.

“Some of my best years were here at Maryland,” O’Leary said. “Love being here, and love coming back. Always nice to get a win, and it’s rare that you get a win on this turf [Maryland’s Field Hockey and Lacrosse Complex].”

The Gators scored 32 seconds into the quarterfinal matchup against the Terrapins and never surrendered the lead. Florida recorded nine goals in the first period and capitalized on its early momentum to ride to a comfortable 15-9 victory.

Despite starting the season 0-2, Florida now embarks on the nation’s longest active winning streak at 20-straight games. 

The Gators gave up a combined 37 goals in their first two losses to then No. 8 Loyola Maryland and No. 6 North Carolina. O’Leary and her staff then made the proper defensive adjustments, and the payoff has led to UF making program history.

“Regy [Thorpe], our defensive coordinator, just does a great job and watches more film than anyone I know,” O’Leary said. “He dissects offenses down to every single detail, and I think he just creates such an amazing game plan.”

And with an elite defensive scheme in place, Florida began executing at an extremely high level, letting up double-digit goals in just three of its following 20 games.

Meanwhile, the offense, which featured six players who posted 30 or more goals this season, began firing away.

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“It’s been anyone’s year, doesn’t matter how you start, it’s how you finish the season,” said Florida senior attacker Danielle Pavinelli. “We just stuck to our game plan, didn’t worry about what was going on outside of our games, and we fought each game and battled it out.”

Pavinelli became a crucial cog in Florida’s offense, scoring 54 goals this season. The senior carried her success into the NCAA Tournament, recording five goals and 13 points in the last three games.

Alongside Pavinelli, Florida senior attacker Maggi Hall established herself among the nation’s top players by earning the second-most totaled points in women’s college lacrosse this season at 114. Hall also set a team record in the process for points in a season. 

“We know we can count on her [Hall] and trust her when she’s got that open look, open pass,” Pavinelli said. “Just being able to read what she’s going to do, [we] let her have that open lane because we know she’s going to finish it if she gets through.”

Florida has facilitated the highest-scoring offense in the nation this season, but its steady defense and improved goaltending have aided its deep tournament run.

Redshirt sophomore goalkeeper Elyse Finnelle had a slow start to her season. However, Finnelle is now the Gators' No. 1 shot-stopper, tallying nine-straight wins in net for UF.

“I know that I have one job, and I’ve got to do my job,” Finnelle said. “I was not really on track with that in the beginning of the season, but knowing that I had to turn it around to create more opportunities for my team.”

Despite Florida being outshot in its quarterfinal matchup against Maryland, Finnelle made 10 saves on 19 shots on goal. Her efforts helped navigate the Gators to the semifinals.

Now, Florida heads into a semifinal matchup as the first unseeded team to reach Championship Weekend since 2017, where the Gators will face No. 1-seeded Northwestern.

The two sides have not faced since 2014, but the Gators lead the all-time series between the squads 6-4.

The Wildcats are appearing in their fifth-consecutive Final Four and are the defending national champions. Northwestern is also the consensus No. 1 team in the country, receiving all 16 first-place votes in the most recent ILWomen/IWLCA Division I Poll.

However, the Gators are heading into the matchup unphased.

“That’s kind of our motto,” Finnelle said. “Just knowing that it’s anybody’s game, and all year we’ve needed to prove something to the people out there.”

O’Leary, the third-winningest active head coach in the nation with 401 wins, knows her team has an opportunity to make history.

“There’s so much that goes into making it to a Final Four, and I think only those who make it can truly, truly appreciate the work and the effort and the sacrifice that goes in,” O’Leary said. “I’m just so proud to be a part of the ride.”

And while their original goal of reaching the Final Four might have been completed, the Gators are focused on a new goal: claiming their first-ever National Championship.

Contact Max Bernstein at mbernstein@alligator.org. Follow him on X @maxbernstein23.




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