— Come up with all the sports cliches you can think of involving the number three and they probably apply to Sunday night's NCAA women's lacrosse championship between No. 1 Maryland and No. 3 North Carolina.
Third time's the charm. It's hard to beat a good team three times. Three strikes and you're out. They all work.
Only once before have the Division I finalists met for the third time in a single season. Maryland, aiming for its 11th NCAA championship and its 12th national title, has defeated the Tar Heels twice already this spring, 14-13 in the regular season and 12-8 in the Atlantic Coast Conference final.
In the 1999 final, Maryland was in the same position and completed the three-game sweep against Virginia to polish off one of its four perfect seasons. Now, the Terps (22-0) aim to do the same against North Carolina (17-3) at 8 p.m. Sunday at Villanova Stadium in a game to be televised on ESPNU.
Few teams ever get to play an opponent three times in one season, but this is the sixth time for North Carolina and coach Jenny Levy, whose Tar Heels have met Maryland, Virginia and Duke in the regular season, the ACC tournament and the NCAA tournament but never in the national title game.
"The good news is the short turnaround," Levy said. "You get home [Friday] night and you have to prepare and get your team ready for [Sunday]. It's nice that we've seen this team before. We just played them in the ACCs but we already made some adjustments. It is unusual but the advantage is the clarity for your prep is pretty good, especially for us because we lost the first two."
If the Tar Heels avenge those earlier losses and win their first national title Sunday, Maryland would be the eighth team to go into the final unbeaten and lose.
The Terps aren't worried about that. In fact, they aren't thinking about much beyond their preparation and their performance.
If Maryland coach Cathy Reese had had her way Friday night, her players would not have found out that North Carolina defeated two-time defending champion Northwestern, 11-4, in the early semifinal until after the Terps edged Syracuse, 11-10, in the other semifinal.
"We didn't watch any of the game before us," Reese said. "We had no cell phones, no anything in the locker room. We just wanted to focus on ourselves. And we come out there to warm up (in Villanova Stadium) and of course the scoreboard's still on and the score was lit up for a good 20 minutes into our warmups, so that didn't work too well."
Not that it mattered which opponent the Terps would face, but Reese prefers her players keep a laser focus on themselves.
The Terps take most defenses apart with their ability to move the ball like lightning among their seven attackers who are all threats to finish.
In both wins over North Carolina, they used second-half scoring runs to put the game away. In the ACC championship, they opened the second half with a 7-1 blitz. In the regular season, they used a 6-2 second-half run to overcome North Carolina's 32-26 advantage in shots.
In Friday's semifinal, Maryland used a passing clinic to set up Brooke Griffin's game winner when Katie Schwarzmann connected with her in front of the goal. Their depth showed too with six players scoring and Kelly McPartland, who ranks eighth on the team in scoring, leading Maryland with three goals.
For North Carolina's defense, the Terps present a different challenge than Northwestern. While the Wildcats preferred isolation plays with only 75 of their 271 goals assisted, the Terps like to keep the ball moving with 160 assists on 330 goals.
"They're a great inside feeding team," Tar Heels senior Kara Cannizzaro said, "and we just have to really tighten up inside and watch for when they set screens. We have to play disciplined and not get complacent when they're passing the ball around looking to go for the inside feed."
Both attacks are led by Tewaaraton Award finalists. Schwarzmann, last season's winner, is nominated again along with Alex Aust and Cannizzaro.
Although Cannizzaro, who scored four times Friday leads the way, the Tar Heels aren't one-dimensional. In the first Maryland game, Cannizzaro scored three goals. In the ACC final, Schwarzmann's defense held her to one. Abbey Friend scored four times.
"When we played in the ACC game we were playing our best defense," Terps senior defender Iliana Sanza said, "and we need to come out [Sunday] and do that again… Just because we're familiar with them doesn't mean we won't make any mistakes and that they won't be going hard, but if we're doing what we did before, we'll be OK."
Although Maryland leads the series 21-10, the Tar Heels have a 2-1 edge in NCAA tournament games, most recently winning the 2009 semifinal.
Maryland is in the national championship game for the 21st time and the 17th since the NCAA took over the tournament in 1982. This is the fifth all-ACC final with the other four between Maryland and Virginia. ACC teams have played in 22 of the previous 31 NCAA finals and won 13 times. In addition to Maryland's 10 titles, Virginia has three.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun