By Kip Coons
CARY — Of all the scenarios Anson Dorrance might have anticipated, he probably never thought he would have to sweat out a three-goal lead against Florida State.
That’s exactly what the North Carolina coach experienced over the final 15 minutes before his No. 2-seed and No. 2-ranked Tar Heels held on for a 3–2 victory Friday night over the No. 1-seed and No. 5-ranked Seminoles in NCAA women’s soccer tournament semifinals.
The Tar Heels (20–4–1) will play for their 22nd NCAA title against another No. 1 seed, No. 1-ranked UCLA — 3–0 winners in the second semifinal over No. 1-seed and No. 3-ranked Alabama — with the chance to avenge a 2–1 home loss to the Bruins on Sept. 4.
In the process, UNC took the rubber match of the three-game season series with FSU (17–3–3). Carolina won the regular-season match 2–1 at FSU on Oct. 20, but the reigning national champion Seminoles claimed the ACC championship with a 2–1 win in Cary on Nov. 6.
Senior midfielder Aleigh Gambone, senior center back Tori Hansen, and senior outside back Julia Dorsey got the goals for UNC, and redshirt freshman goalkeeper Emmie Allen made them stand up with a career-high nine saves.
“We’re playing with house money,” Dorrance said.
“We’ve lost two of the best players in the country,” he said, referencing injured center back Maycee Bell and center midfielder Sam Meza. “And we’re in the national championship game. Are you kidding me?”
Conventional wisdom would suggest that the Tar Heels would have the advantage playing for high stakes only 22 miles from campus, but that hasn’t been the case. Surprisingly, FSU entered the match with a 5–4 edge against UNC in Cary, winning the last three in a row.
The big one was the 2018 NCAA final, which FSU claimed 1–0. That was the only previous meeting between the two ACC heavyweights in the College Cup.
After a tight first half, the second half turned into a goalfest. And it led to an almost unthinkable realization that UNC might blow a three-goal lead.
But Allen made three saves down the stretch and sealed the win by hauling down a desperation diagonal service into the goalmouth with two seconds left.
“As a goalkeeper, that was very nerve-wracking,” Allen admitted, “but at the same time, that’s part of the position. Like you’re not always going to save every single shot.”
Although Florida State had the upper hand for most of the first half, it was UNC who broke on top in the late stages against the run of play. And it was Dorrance’s substitutes — the self-proclaimed “Gamechangers” — who were responsible.
Freshman Maddie Dahlien, who had subbed in at forward, controlled a ball down the right channel and sent a sharp cross to the far post.
FSU midfielder Heather Payne was there to redirect it but only succeeded in knocking it back toward the 18.
Gambone, another UNC sub, was there to pounce on it and rifled it into the net for her second goal of the season in the 42nd minute.
“It’s been hard for her to get on the field for major minutes because we have so much talent,” Dorrance said. “But every time we invest in her, she pays us back, and today was an absolutely fabulous example.”
UNC came out for the second half with renewed energy and soon extended the lead as they found space on the flanks to attack out of their 3–5–2 formation.
Hansen made it 2–0 with a penalty kick in the 59th minute for her eighth goal, which was set up when Ally Sentnor’s shot from just outside the penalty area struck FSU defender Heather Gilchrist in the arm. Sentnor had similarly provided UNC with a penalty attempt in the regular-season win over FSU.
Six minutes later, it was 3-0 when Dorsey (below) headed home a free kick from Emily Moxley for her first goal of the season and second of her career. She goes for her second national title of the calendar year after being part of UNC’s women’s lacrosse national championship team last spring.
It took them only 36 seconds to pull back one goal, with Onyi Echegini heading in her team-leading 11th goal on a cross from Jody Brown.
FSU cut the lead to one goal in the 76th minute on an identical play. This time, it was Echegini with the cross from the right side, and Payne was there at the far post for a header of atonement.
“I don’t know if it was like a switch was flipped or anything, but I think it was just like we knew it was now or never to start getting things happening,” FSU senior midfielder Jenna Nighswonger said.
FSU coach Brian Pensky, in his first year with the program after coming over from Tennessee, thought the Seminoles played “phenomenal” soccer.
“We were really good,” he insisted. “Shots 25 to 14, corner kicks 13 to 3. We gave up a goal on a set piece. We gave up a goal against the run of play before halftime, and we gave up a goal on a penalty.
“We’re really good, [and] we’re really disappointed that we’re going home.”
UNC is returning home also, but only because the Tar Heels are playing in their backyard.
Dorrance said he still thrills at the experience of playing for another national championship, and said there wasn’t any added pressure when it was pointed out that he hadn’t won one in 10 years.
“I don’t know what you think, but I think my legacy is secure,” he said, prompting some laughter from the press conference room.
“Basically, every single year is a new collection of extraordinary people you get to know, have as part of your life. And so, that’s the way I look at it. I could have retired a long time ago and been very comfortable.”
He added, “I mean, one of the most enjoyable moments postgame for me was to have my good friend Roy Williams find me and give me the warmest hug because he knows why I’m still coaching. It’s basically all about the kids.”
No. 2-ranked UNC 3, No. 5 FSU 2
|25||Thursday||W, 2–0||Texas||Austin, Texas||3–0–0|
|28||Sunday||W, 6–0||Baylor||Austin, Texas||4–0–0|
|1||Thursday||W, 3–1||Missouri||Columbia, Mo.||5–0–0|
|4||Sunday||L, 2–1||No. 1 UCLA||Home||5–1–0|
|8||Thursday||W, 3–0||X-No. 8 Duke||Durham||6–1–0|
|11||Sunday||W, 2–1||Central Florida||Home||7–1–0|
|17||Saturday||L, 3–2||No. 11 Virginia||Home||7–2–0,|
|22||Thursday||W, 1–0||Syracuse||Syracuse, N.Y.||8–2–0,|
|25||Sunday||W, 3–0||Boston College||Home||9–2–0,|
|1||Saturday||L, 2–1||Virginia Tech||Blacksburg, Va.||9–3–0,|
|6||Thursday||W, 4–0||No. 19 Pittsburgh||Home||10–3–0,|
|9||Sunday||W, 2–0||N.C. State||Home||11–3–0,|
|14||Friday||W, 1–0||Wake Forest||Home||12–3–0,|
|20||Thursday||W, 2–1||No. 5 |
|23||Sunday||W, 4–0||Miami||Coral Gables, Fla.||14–3–0,|
|27||Thursday||W, 1–0||Louisville||Louisville, Ky.||15–3–0,|
|3||Thursday||T, 0–0, 2 OTs (UNC advances 7–6 on PKs)||Semifinal vs. |
No. 8 Duke
|6||Sunday||L, 2–1||Final vs. No. 5 Florida State||Cary||15–4–1|
|12||Saturday||W, 5–0||First round: |
|17||Thursday||W, 3–1||Second round: Georgia||Chapel Hill||17–4–1|
|19||Saturday||W, 3–2||Third round: |
No. 15 BYU
|South Bend, Ind.||19–4–1|
|2||Friday||W, 3–2||Semifinals: No. 5 Florida State||Cary||20–4–1|
|5||Monday||L, 3–2, 2 OTs||Championship: No. 1 UCLA||Cary||20–5–1|
Photos courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications