CARY — The last time the No. 3 North Carolina women’s soccer team played against No. 7 Florida State, UNC head coach Anson Dorrance was fortunate enough to still have Alessia Russo and Emily Fox in the starting lineup.
In that matchup on Sept. 14, the Tar Heels outlasted the Seminoles 1-0, with both players contributing to the close win. But in an anticipated rematch between the top-10 programs in the ACC Championship game Sunday, Russo and Fox were nowhere to be found on the pitch at WakeMed Soccer Park.
Russo is out for the season with a broken leg, and Fox is off with the United States National Team in Europe. The Tar Heels missed the contributions of the two starters as their undefeated conference record and 12-game winning streak were snapped in a 3-2 loss. The presence of the two starters would have made a difference.
UNC dominated the possession in the first 15 minutes of play — but couldn’t conjure up any goals in Florida State territory. Then, the Seminoles turned the table and took control midway through the half.
“They picked us apart,” Dorrance said. “Obviously, they targeted our left side (where Fox plays), and they did a good job down that side and their players are wonderful finishers in the box. They were clinical in their finishing.”
North Carolina could have used Fox, an All-ACC selection, on defense in the minutes preceding the break, when the Seminoles throttled momentum in their favor with two straight goals, five minutes and 17 seconds apart. Her veteran presence on the back line might have even balanced out the shots, which gave Florida State an 8-3 advantage.
Down two goals for the first time in over two years, the program needed a goal scorer like Russo, the ACC Offensive Player of the Year, who could help the team catch back up. With a sense of urgency and increasing pressure, the Tar Heels took five more shots than the Seminoles the rest of the game.
And they did catch back up. Redshirt senior Alex Kimball, who had been filling the shoes and some of the offensive void with Russo out, made the most of her opportunity, scoring the Tar Heels’ first goal of the day in the 63rd minute. With the game much closer, she sparked hope in a comeback.
“Alessia is one of the best players I’ve ever trained with,” Kimball said. “She’s just a world class person and player. It’s hard filling her role, but I’m trying to help my team in the best ways that I can. I just do as much as I can with what I can do.”
The Tar Heels tied the game on a header by Ru Mucherera, her first score of the season, in the 72nd minute. For the next 12 minutes, they couldn’t muster a shot — something they’ve relied upon Russo for this season.
When Florida State made a run in the 84th minute, North Carolina couldn’t delay the inevitable. A goal from Kristina Lynch put the 3-2 nail in the coffin. Without two key pieces in Russo and Fox, the team was weakened and prevented from capturing its 22nd ACC Tournament Championship
“We’re obviously disappointed, but not disappointed with our effort,” Dorrance said. “I certainly had faith in the character of my kids. I felt that if we did go behind, we would try to fight back. We’ve fought back from deficits before. I was certainly happy with that demonstration in character.”
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