CARY— At this point in the season, any win — be it a nail-biter or a blowout — is good enough for a team to survive.
The No. 1-seeded North Carolina women’s soccer team’s chose the latter in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday, leaving no doubt about who should move on in a 3-0 win over High Point.
“We don’t care if we advance on penalty kicks, but it’s nice to advance by scoring a couple goals,” head coach Anson Dorrance said. “It’s nice to not have an injury, so we feel really good about all of this. The whole point right now is just to advance and so after every NCAA game if we are advancing, I’m going to be happy.”
UNC (16-2-2) entered Saturday with a 125-12-3 record in the NCAA Tournament. In the 36-year history of the tournament, the Tar Heels have never missed the postseason or lost in the first round of the tournament. But they knew history wouldn’t guarantee an easy win.
“I think we have such great potential for our team and I would hate to see it go to waste,” senior Abby Elinsky said. “So I think we should capitalize on all our chances and really come out to play and not leave anything behind each game.”
In an early afternoon match at WakeMed Soccer Park, North Carolina came out and worked hard to create as many chances to win as they could. An aggressive first several minutes of the match lead to an Elinsky goal in the sixth minute, her second of the season into the upper right corner of the goal.
“I just saw a look at the goal and took it,” Elinsky said. “A big factor in these tournament games is to score first and score early.”
Before Saturday, the team hadn’t been able to score in the first half in recent win against N.C. State in the ACC semifinals and Duke in the ACC Championship, relying on late-game goals to win. That wasn’t so against the Panthers, as UNC created opportunities off 10 corners for the half, including six in the first eight minutes of the game. UNC eventually finished the game with 24 shots (10 on goal) and 17 corners. Its opponent had zero in all three of those categories.
The second goal of the game came in the 39th minute off one of those many corners. North Carolina had been had been ricocheting the ball off the Panther defense in search of a score deep in the box, until junior Julia Ashley followed a rebound from a Kate Morris shot, powering the ball into the left corner of the goal. Morgan Goff piled on another goal in the 69th minute after a cross from Elinsky and a header from Madison Schultz.
While the UNC offense was thriving, High Point’s was not. The Big South Conference champion sat back for much of the contest in hopes of preventing any North Carolina scores until the game was nearly over. The Panthers did not take a shot all game, due in part because when they did push for a goal, the Tar Heel defense wouldn’t allow it.
“No one is going to get through us,” Ashley said. “We have each other’s backs constantly and our chemistry is great.”
The defense put up its 12th shutout of the year while allowing no shots or corners. The last time the program allowed zero shots in a game was on Oct. 17, 2013, against Syracuse in a 1-0 win. The defense's impressive performance was part of the reason the game never drew close, and that group expected to be a crucial part of whether the team continues to advance.
“It’s definitely crucial to shut down the attack of the other side and make their forwards really work for anything,” Elinsky said. “Defensively it’s just one missed step, one anything, one miscommunication and being taking advantage of and that can be the margin of error.”
The Tar Heels won’t be awarded more room for error moving forward, but they will have another chance to survive and advance on Friday in the second round of the tournament. They'll the winner of a Nov. 12 match between Colorado and Denver. One game at a time, UNC will continue to prove their worth in search of another national championship.
“Each game we’re going to play elevating competition,” Dorrance said. “I mean the NCAA designed it that way … The next game will be harder than this game. If we survive that one, the game following that will be harder than the game before it and that’s the way it’s going to be from here on out.”