Fifth-seeded UNC opens play Thursday morning when it meets fourth-seeded Louisville (15-4, 3-3 ACC) in the tournament’s opening game in Winston-Salem. The Tar Heels lost a close one to the No. 8 Cardinals earlier this year, getting shut out 1-0 in Louisville.
This matchup has the makings of a defensive thriller, with UNC giving up 1.21 goals per game and Louisville ceding an ACC-best 0.99 goals per game. A win could help both teams with NCAA Tournament seeding and the possibility of a host bid.
How do they play?
Louisville plays one of the more defensive games in the ACC, leading the conference in both shutouts (7) and goals against per game (0.99). The Cardinals showed how stout their defense can be earlier this season, dropping UNC 1-0 at home.
The Cardinals are also a very good passing team, moving the ball around well in the offensive half.
Who stands out?
Teamwork makes the dream work for the Cardinals offensively, as Louisville has three players — Erin McCrudden (17), Marigrace Ragsdale (10) and Nicole Woods (9) — ranked in the top four in the ACC in assists.
The hard work of their passing ends up on the stick of Minout Mink, who has converted often this year. The talented first-year has flourished this season, scoring 14 goals for the Cardinals in 2016.
The Tar Heels will look to ACC Defensive Player of the Year Julia Young to help slow down Mink’s pace. For the Tar Heels, keeping the Cardinals’ first-year phenom off the scoresheet will be crucial.
What is their weakness?
The Cardinals have had seven games decided by one goal this year, winning five of them. Louisville has found a way to squeak out those matchups to this point, but the team could make life much easier for themselves with an insurance goal here and there.
The Tar Heels can exploit this weakness by scoring early and often. The Cardinals’ style depends on them being ahead, so if North Carolina can get off to an early lead it will be difficult for Louisville to overcome the deficit.
This was something North Carolina didn’t do in its game against the Cardinals on Oct. 15. The Tar Heels outshot Louisville 11-6, but they could not put one past Cardinal goalkeeper Ayeisha McFerran. This was one of only three times in the season that UNC was held scoreless.
Louisville is also coming off a brutal 4-1 loss to Michigan, setting back the momentum it gathered during a five-game winning streak — which included the 1-0 victory over the Tar Heels.
How could they win?
For Louisville to win, the game will have to be low-scoring and the Cardinals will need to keep possession of the ball.
Trying to beat the Tar Heels in a shootout would not play well into Louisville’s hands, as UNC has scored an ACC-leading 57 goals across 17 games this year. The team that controls the tempo will likely be the one facing Duke in the semifinals on Friday.