By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — Carolina’s redemption season took another step on an emotional day that marked the final home game for transcendent Tar Heels star Erin Matson.
She’s given fans so many eye-popping memories over her five-year UNC career and added another one with a hat trick in her final game at Karen Shelton Stadium.
One season after the Tar Heels lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament, top-ranked Carolina rolled past No. 9 Saint Joseph’s 5–2 on Sunday in the quarterfinals with the domination that showed why it’s the best and the most tradition-rich program in the country.
UNC (19–0) earned their 75th NCAA tournament win and 26th Final Four appearance, both records, in their record 104th tournament game. The Tar Heels, who have won nine national titles, face No. 6 Penn State (17–3) in a national semifinal Friday in Storrs, Conn. (noon, ESPN+).
No. 3 Northwestern (19–4), which beat UNC in the first round last season 2–0, faces No. 2 Maryland in the other semifinal after beating No. 11 Iowa on Sunday 2–1.
“It’s a full team effort to be able to make things like that happen,” Matson said of the hat trick, which made her the third all-time goal scorer in NCAA history. “But, at the same time, it makes me happy to leave the game like that and personally feel good about my performance. But also, more importantly, I feel good about how the team played together.”
“I have nothing but gratitude for having the opportunity to coach Erin for five years,” Shelton said. “She’s a remarkable player, a remarkable human being.”
Matson asked Shelton, with less than two minutes left, to allow all of the seniors to finish the game on the field, which made for an emotional finish to their last home game.
“We all looked at each other, started tearing up, bowed our heads, put our arms out in a perfect circle, and it was a really special moment that I’ll never forget,” Matson said. “Our class has been through a lot. It’s a class that we’re all very close. We’re the first class who have started on this field and ended on this field and in the stadium. So there’s a lot of memories and special moments that we shared.”
One of those six seniors is midfielder Meredith Sholder, who said that Matson has done a “stupendous” job leading the team this year.
“The fact that she was still able to get a hat trick on her last home game, even though they know who Erin Matson is, and know how to mark her, is just awesome,” Sholder said. “And I think she’s been really stepping up this season.”
That first-round loss on a chilly Iowa day stuck with the Tar Heels throughout the offseason.
“I think that’s been in the back of our minds again this year,” Matson said. “Try to not compare years; try to not think about last year. But, if anything, it gives us motivation that we were sent to freezing cold Iowa, and we got to host this year. We were the underdog in the ACC tournament this year. We were at the top and wanted to do everything we could to stay there.”
The ACC champion Tar Heels dominated from the start of the game as St. Joseph’s didn’t possess the ball on UNC’s half of the field until the 13th minute. Senior midfielder Paityn Wirth, who assisted on two of Matson’s goals, gave UNC a 1–0 lead in the 10th minute as Hawks goalkeeper Robin Bleekemolen deflected but couldn’t stop the shot from just in front of the cage.
In the second quarter, Matson scored twice in less than two minutes to give UNC a 3–0 halftime edge. The first of the two was a rocketed stroke off a penalty corner in the 27th minute.
Wirth and Matson fueled Carolina’s surge that shifted a tight game into a blowout.
“The energy from Erin and I, we really feed off each other, honestly,” Wirth said. “We have a connection on the field, but off the field, we have been working with each other to kind of better the relationship and what we want in here and our goals. We all want the same goals, so just how can we get there and really get on the same page, and that was our big focus for this game.”
Matson added a goal on a penalty stroke in the 31st minute to give her 25 for the season and a program-record 134 for her career, the third-highest in NCAA history.
Sholder said the team is ready for a different ending this season.
“Coming back from last year, we definitely weren’t satisfied, and it was a bit of a redemption tour,” Sholder said. “It’s a new team; it’s not the same team as last year. So we just have to keep remembering that. And I think we’re just really fortunate with how hard we’re working and coming together.”
Saint Joseph’s Leigh James slipped a goal past goalkeeper Kylie Walbert in the 31st minute, but UNC freshman Ashley Sessa’s score in the 49th minute from the circle shoved Carolina’s lead to 5–1.
The Hawks’ Sol Bornsztein made it 5–2 on a goal in the 52nd minute.
Even in an easy win, UNC has such high standards that those second-half goals irritated Shelton.
“I felt that we gave up two goals a little cheaply,” she said. “Not to take anything away from St. Joe’s scoring them, but we had five shots and two goals. So, we’ll look at that. The one good thing about this team is that they continue to learn. Even though it was a time to really celebrate, and it absolutely is. We’ll look at the videotape and get better this week going into the Final Four.”
NOTES — It was the second NCAA tournament win over the Hawks after a 4–0 first-round win in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. UNC beat them 6–0 in Chapel Hill on Oct. 23. … Carolina went 13–7 last season, losing to Northwestern 2–0 in the first round of the NCAA tournament, the Tar Heels’ last loss. … Matson only trails two Old Dominion players who scored 167 goals on the all-time NCAA goals list: Maaike Hilbrand and Marina Di Giacomo. On Sunday, Matson passed the 132-goal total of Iowa’s Kristy Gleason. Two of those three played before Matson was born, and Di Giacomo’s final season was the year Matson was born. … That was only the fourth time all season that UNC has given up more than one goal. … UNC basketball player Eva Hodgson was at the game.
No. 1 UNC 5, No. 9 St. Joe’s 2
|26||Friday||5–1||No. 4 Michigan||Winston-Salem||1–0|
|28||Sunday||3–2 (OT)||No. 11 Iowa||Winston-Salem||2–0|
|2||Friday||4–3||No. 7 Princeton||Home||3–0|
|16||Friday||3–0||No. 12 Louisville||Louisville, Ky.||7–0, |
|23||Friday||2–0||No. 10 Wake Forest||Home||8–0, |
|2||Sunday||6–3||No. 13 Liberty||Lynchburg, Va.||9–0|
|7||Friday||4–3||No. 20 Boston College||Newton, Mass.||10–0, |
|9||Sunday||3–0||No. 15 Connecticut||Storrs, Conn.||11–0|
|14||Friday||6–1||No. 8 Syracuse||Home||12–0, |
|21||Friday||3–1||No. 5 Virginia||Home||13–0, |
|23||Sunday||6–0||No. 9 Saint Joseph’s||Home||14–0, |
|29||Saturday||2–0||No. 25 Duke||Durham||15–0, |
|2||Wednesday||3–1||Semifinal: No. 8 Syracuse||Durham||16–0|
|4||Friday||3–2||Final: No. 5 Virginia||Durham||17–0|
|11||Friday||5–1||First round vs. |
|13||Sunday||5–1||Second round vs. |
No. 9 St. Joseph’s
|18||Friday||3–0||National semifinal vs. |
No. 6 Penn State
|20||Sunday||1:30 p.m.||Championship vs. |
No. 2 Northwestern
Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications