No. 3 North Carolina welcomes No. 6 Virginia on Saturday in the women's NCAA Tournament quarterfinals, one win away from the Final Four. After securing an 18-5 victory over Navy in the tourney's first round Sunday, the Tar Heels have concentrated on avoiding the mistakes that led to their 13-12, overtime defeat against UVa earlier in the season.
UNC squandered an early five-goal advantage, a memory that doesn't sit well with Ripley. She leads the Atlantic Coast Conference and the nation in goals-against average, allowing 107 goals in 961 minutes (6.68 average) in 18 starts.
"We pretty much have the mindset we've had all year, and that is we try to learn and improve every game, every practice, and that has been our approach the entire season," Ripley told FanHouse. "It's crazy to think about each game could be our last, but that's also what motivates us. Virginia is a great team and we are expecting a great game."
It expects an emotional game, too.
UVa has been thrust in the national spotlight following the May 3 death of senior defender Yeardley Love, 22, who was allegedly murdered by former boyfriend and UVa men's lacrosse player George Huguely.
The Cavaliers will receive a warm reception here at Fetzer Field for the 1 p.m. match. Tar Heels' head coach Jenny Levy is a Virginia graduate and former teammate of UVa head coach Julie Myers on the Cavs' 1991 national championship team. They remain close friends.
The UNC women are wearing wristbands with YL1, Love's initials and uniform number, throughout their own run through the tournament. The Tar Heels also painted their toenails orange last week in support of the Cavaliers. A moment of silence will be observed in Love's honor before the game.
"We want to be empathetic, we want to be supportive of the situation at Virginia," Levy said. "At the same time, we want to show our respect for their program. ... Virginia is coming here to play their best lacrosse, and we obviously want to play our best lacrosse."
Myers believes the Cavs' dramatic home victory over UNC will provide confidence for her team, while the memory of Love continues to serve as inspiration. Once the match starts, however, the most important key will be UVa's success against Ripley and UNC's stingy defense.
"It's going to take teamwork," Myers explained.
"The ball is going to have to move quickly. We are going to have to be aggressive, we are going to have to take some chances and we're just going to have to go with the net in mind. We need to test (Ripley), because they are playing great but we want to make sure they are still playing great. It will be a balance, taking our chances, when they are smart chances, as well as being patient."
UNC (16-2) has won 10 of its last 11 games. The Tar Heels' two losses were the overtime defeat at Virginia on March 13 and a 10-5 loss at Maryland in the ACC Tournament final. UNC is 9-0 at home this season and has won eight consecutive home NCAA Tournament games. The Tar Heels last lost at home in NCAA play in 2000 to Loyola.
UNC senior midfielder Jenn Russell, who has 39 points this season and has been named as one of five finalists for the Tewaaraton Award, which is given to the nation's top women's lacrosse player, helps anchor the Tar Heels' up-tempo attack. Eight players had goals as they out-shot Navy 39-13.
Ripley, meanwhile, helps set the defensive tone with her aggressive approach. Ripley has been named All-ACC in each of the last two years, and was the 2009 National Goalkeeper of the Year by the IWLCA and a first-team All-American in her first year as a starter.
While Ripley admits she must exhibit better patience against the Cavs, she will again rely on her teammates as they look to advance to the Final Four for the second consecutive year. Ripley doesn't want the season, or her career, to end.
"I think the biggest thing with our team is that we've really connected on and off the field, there's such great chemistry," said Ripley, a former three-sport star from Earlysville, Va., who will remain at UNC next year to continue her education.
"I think for us when we are playing our best is when we rely on each other. Some days we are carried by our attack and some days by the D. We haven't relied on a single player. I am not trying to think about it (potential last game). We are just looking forward to going out and playing a great match against a great team."