CARY — Cherif Dieye put the icing on the cake of his 21st birthday on Sunday at WakeMed Soccer Park.
The Louisville junior midfielder scored the only goal of the match to help No. 10 Louisville beat No. 4 North Carolina, 1-0, and win the program’s first ACC Championship.
In the 29th minute, Cardinals' (11-4-3, 4-2-2 ACC) senior forward Tate Schmitt collected a loose ball and placed a no-look pass in space. Dieye met the ball and fired a shot under sophomore defender John Nelson, who slid for the block attempt.
Redshirt senior goalkeeper James Pyle looked frozen and the Tar Heels (14-3-1, 6-1 ACC), who are tied as the top defense in the nation by goals allowed, allowed their eighth goal of the year.
“I just scored the game winner, but my teammates won the whole game,” Dieye said. “Because they defended very well, and they did what they had to do. It is so special. I couldn’t ask for a better gift for a 21st birthday.”
UNC head coach Carlos Somoano, who applauded his team’s effort after the match, said his only regret was his club’s hesitation in the opening half.
North Carolina started the match with a conservative approach on offense with only three shot attempts and one on goal in the first 45 minutes. But after it headed to the locker room scoreless during the intermission, the team came out with a stronger attack in the second half.
“(We) could’ve been a little more aggressive from the get-go,” Somoano said. “I feel like we were a little hesitant in trying to find our way and trying to feel the game out a little bit too hard.”
Junior midfielder Mauricio Pineda, senior forward Nils Bruening, junior forward Jack Skahan and redshirt junior forward Jelani Pieters — who scored the game-winning goal in the ACC semifinal match against Duke — all attempted shots in the second half.
None could find the back of the net.
“As the half went on, we put the onus on them and forced them to have to break us down,” Louisville head coach Ken Lolla said.
Lolla, who coached Louisville in its second ACC title match, took a different approach than the one he took when his team fell to Clemson in the 2014 conference championship. In that contest, the Tigers tied the match with three seconds left, and the Cardinals fell in overtime.
“I was so happy to see the zeros show up on the clock,” Lolla said. “The last time we were here, we probably should’ve won it but didn’t handle the last seconds of it very well.”
Pieters’ heroics saved the Tar Heels from going to overtime against the Blue Devils on Wednesday. He scored less than 30 seconds after a Duke midfielder tied the match in the 87th minute.
This time, however, UNC couldn’t find its hero.
“They put a lot of responsibility on us to take advantage of our set pieces and our free kicks,” Somoano said. “And we didn’t do a very good with our set pieces and our free kicks.”
North Carolina has now lost in its last two ACC Championship game appearances — in 2012 and in 2018. The Tar Heels must now wait for the NCAA selection show on Monday to find out their first opponent in the NCAA Tournament.
UNC hung its head and didn’t make players available for interviews, while Louisville looked forward to two celebrations on Sunday night: an ACC Soccer Championship and Dieye’s milestone birthday.
“He’s such a special player,” Louisville goalkeeper Jake Gelnovatch said. “And he’s such a great finisher, as well, as you could see from that goal. Well deserved. What better for a birthday?”
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