North Carolina 2, Northwestern 1
The national title is headed back to Chapel Hill for a record 10th time.
Northwestern (20-5, 5-3 Big Ten) fell to North Carolina (21-0,6-0 ACC) 2-1 on a chilly championship Sunday in Storrs, Conn.
The Tar Heels attacked early in the first quarter, earning their first and only penalty less than six minutes into the contest. Forward Erin Matson stepped up to take the shot and junior goalie Annabel Skubisz dove right to push the ball out of harm’s way. Matson, the five-time ACC Offensive Player of the Year, missed the penalty mark for the first time this season.
North Carolina dominated the first 15 minutes, as coach Karen Shelton’s team collected five shots – four of which were on goal. NU failed to register a single shot in the first quarter, but sound defense and Skubisz’s heroics kept the game at 0-0.
Two minutes into the second quarter, the Tar Heels earned their fourth penalty corner of the game. Freshman midfielder Sietske Brüning hit a shot on goal, which freshman midfielder Ryleigh Heck deflected past Skubisz to put North Carolina ahead 1-0.
With just three seconds left in the first half, the Cats worked the ball into the circle and nearly earned their first penalty corner of the game. However, the on-field call was reversed after a Tar Heel citation found senior midfielder Peyton Halsey committed a stick hack. North Carolina ran down in the final seconds, and NU trailed 1-0 at halftime.
The Cats’ offense remained dormant in the third quarter, and the Tar Heel defense completely shut down an NU team that averages 18.5 shots per game. Through 45 minutes of play, the Cats still didn’t register a shot.
Fifth-year striker Bente Baekers appeared to have a golden opportunity to level the scores with ten minutes left in the game. The Dutch star had the whole of the near post open but was unable to connect with the ball cleanly and it traveled wide of the net.
Coach Tracey Fuchs pulled Skubisz with 2:37 left to trade for an extra forward. This allowed NU to earn their first penalty corner of the game 30 seconds later. Baekers didn’t let another chance go to waste, firing home his 25th goal of the season to tie the game at 1-1.
Shortly after, North Carolina’s Paityn Wirth worked the ball into the circle, which Matson would convert with just over a minute remaining to give the Tar Heels a 2-1 lead.
The Cats couldn’t answer on short notice, and the Tar Heels went on to win their 10th national championship.
Here are three takeaways from NU’s national championship loss to North Carolina.
1. Cats participated in the match test in the NM
After finishing as finalists in the Big Ten Tournament, Fuchs said NU plays in “the best conference in the country. The Cats’ last 10 games were decided by one-goal margins, with five of those contests going to overtime.
Three of four teams in the Final Four were Big Ten members, and NU beat the other two teams, Maryland and Penn State, at least once this season.
2. Cold offensive start
At par with the frigid Connecticut temperatures, NU failed to score a goal in the first half of the NCAA Tournament.
The Tar Heels outscored the Cats 10-0 in the first two quarters, collecting seven shots on goal along with four penalty corners. Fuchs’ team, which thrived on penalty corners all season, didn’t get an opportunity to test North Carolina in the first 30 minutes.
Without six saves in the first half from Skubisz, NU would have dug themselves into a much bigger hole to climb out of.
3. Tar heels are proving too much for the cats of heart
NU thrived in the second half of games all season, but North Carolina never let the opposition warm up for too long.
In a battle of two complete teams across the board, the aggressive Tar Heel press stymied the Cats for much of the game.
When Baekers finally put on a moment of magic on NU’s only penalty corner of the game with just under two minutes remaining, North Carolina’s fifth-year star Matson responded immediately to put the game back in Tar Heel control.
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