UNC women's soccer walks off the field with 21st NCAA title

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Amber Brooks holds up the NCAA Championship trophy while celebrating with her teammates after winnin the 2012 NCAA Championship in San Diego. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey A. Camarati.

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — It was coach Anson Dorrance’s 21st NCAA championship. It was the program’s 22nd national title.

But these Tar Heels had to make a giant leap all their own.

Had No. 13 UNC (15-5-3) lost during the NCAA tournament, instead of defeating Penn State 4-1 as it did in the final on Sunday, its six losses would have been UNC’s most ever in a single season. Instead, UNC turned what could have become its worst season in history into the best possible outcome.

“We overachieved,” Dorrance said. “I thought our NCAA seeding was too high — we should have been a third seed, so when we were a two, that was a great break.

“A lot of other teams could have been here in our place.”

Four different players scored for the Tar Heels against the No. 5 Nittany Lions (21-4-2) — forward Kealia Ohai, defender Hanna Gardner, defender Satara Murray and midfielder Ranee Premji.

Ohai was named the College Cup’s Most Outstanding Player on offense, and Murray won the award for defense.

Penn State was the last roadblock for a North Carolina team that took out three of the four top seeds in the tournament — BYU, Stanford and Penn State — back-to-back-to-back.

UNC struck early in each half. Hardly more than a minute after the opening kickoff, Ohai ran down a deep ball from Murray, dribbled across the top of the box, and banged a shot home off the crossbar.

Ohai, who was kept off the board in the tournament’s earlier rounds, ended up scoring two of the biggest goals of UNC’s season. She also had the winner against Stanford.

“I don’t think anything really changed,” Ohai said. “In the end, I just got a couple of opportunities (this weekend) and I’m really thankful that I was able to finish.”

Penn State struck back in the 19th minute when forward Taylor Schram chipped a shot over keeper Adelaide Gay. The teams went into halftime tied at one.

But Gardner put UNC ahead for good, heading in a Katie Bowen corner only 48 seconds into the second half. Murray made it 3-1 in the 64th minute, also off a corner.

Gardner said the defense’s aggressiveness in the second half helped push UNC over the top.

“In the first half, our back line was dropping more than they should,” Gardner said. “Our outside backs should have been stepping more. That moment of hesitation really hurt us. So in the second half, we pushed forward a lot and attacked.”

But Penn State coach Erica Walsh said regardless of which Tar Heels played where, the early-half goals were what cost the Nittany Lions the match.

“When the game is starting, when the half is starting, you have all these things in front of you and all of a sudden you have a ball in the back of the net that you’re picking out,” Walsh said.

“You’re constantly searching for answers at that point, and that’s what Carolina did to us — they had us searching for the next answer.”

Contact the desk editor at sports@dailytarheel.com.

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