CARY – Even when it looked like Saturday night’s NCAA Tournament quarterfinals match could go either way in a game between two high-powered, skillful sides, Samantha Leshnak, goalkeeper for UNC women's soccer, believed her team would win.
No. 1 seed UNC (20-3-2, 10-0 ACC) faced No. 2 seed UCLA (17-3-2, 9-2 Pac-12) with a spot in the College Cup on the line. Leshnak had a chance to turn belief into reality with penalty kicks approaching. After 110 minutes of action, nothing separated the Tar Heels and the Bruins, who were knotted at two goals apiece.
She didn’t disappoint.
Goalkeepers are inherently at a disadvantage during penalty kicks, having to rely on instinct and athleticism, whereas the players taking the kick can pick out their spots and attempt to reproduce routines from the training ground. Yet, Saturday night, Leshnak was the star. She saved the Bruins’ two final shots in the penalty shootout, and UNC advanced (2-2, 4-2 penalty kicks) to the College Cup for the first time since 2016.
“We were the better team, nobody is the same as us, nobody trains as hard, nobody is this close,” Leshnak said, explaining her confidence in herself and her teammates. “It was for our team.”
And her performance during penalty kicks?
“It was the least, honestly, I could do for my team,” she said.
The Tar Heels, now just two wins away from a 22nd NCAA national title, will face Georgetown on Friday at 5 p.m. in the semifinals of a College Cup comprised completely of No. 1 seeds (Florida State and Stanford play on the other side of the bracket).
Between UNC and UCLA, there was quality all over the field, and the battle the two sides waged reflected that. At times, Saturday’s match moved at a ferocious pace, with the action going end-to-end in a matter of seconds. Clever decision making and sly one-touch passing were commonplace for both the Tar Heels and the Bruins.
Julia Ashley, one of four seniors who started Saturday, said UCLA had “a great technical, tactical side.” Compliments aside, Ashley said she and her teammates knew going into the game that they were not going to lose.
Perhaps her confidence came from her recent offensive form, which was also on display against the Bruins. Despite playing as a wing back, Ashley entered Saturday’s game having scored a goal and provided five assists in UNC’s first three NCAA Tournament matches.
In just the third minute against UCLA, Ashley added a second goal to her postseason tally. She headed home a ball from close range on a corner kick by sophomore center back Lotte Wubben-Moy, to give UNC an early advantage.
“I think it’s just really starting to hit me that it’s my senior year, and every game is about to be my last,” Ashley said of her recent uptick on offensive productivity.
UNC will ride that wave as far as it can.
Another Tar Heel senior, Dorian Bailey, stepped up to double UNC’s advantage, giving the home team a 2-0 lead in the 53rd minute as she one-touched her shot into the back of the net following a partial UCLA clearance.
That goal proved to be crucial, as UCLA followed up with a frenetic rally that was just as fast as it was improbable.
It took just 53 seconds for the Bruins’ Hailie Mace to net a pair of goals between the 57th and 58th minutes, undoing the work done by UNC up to that point.
But if North Carolina was fazed by this turn of events, it didn’t show.
“I think we’ve got a shockingly mature team for a team that starts so many freshmen and sophomores,” UNC head coach Anson Dorrance said.
As the second half wore on, both teams had chances to grab a win, but neither could. While the 20 minutes of sudden-death overtime proved to be exciting, neither team scored.
Despite the two sides combining for 36 shots, 14 of which were on target, goalkeeping proved to be the difference.
Having refocused after UCLA’s pair of quick strikes, Leshnak helped UNC get to overtime, then penalty kicks. Once there, she made the two biggest saves of her career. The moment was a long time coming for the senior goalkeeper, who has rebounded from a miscue that resulted in a conceded goal in last year’s season-ending loss to Princeton. Leshnak said she’s been able to bounce back this season because of the Tar Heels' “unbelievable leadership.”
“We’ve been able to establish a culture among all the different classes that’s just brought us together as a family,” Leshnak said.
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