CARY — It was a house divided on a cold night in Cary, as the No. 1-seeded North Carolina women’s soccer team unleashed their offense to take down No. 5 NC State, 3-0, in Friday night’s ACC quarterfinal.
Fans in Carolina Blue left WakeMed Soccer Park in higher spirits than their Wolfpack counterparts, after junior Alessia Russo led the way with two goals to advance UNC to Sunday’s ACC Championship against UVA, the No. 1 team in the nation.
Despite the frigid conditions, head coach Anson Dorrance’s Tar Heels came out of the gates hot. It took a mere seven minutes for UNC to notch its first goal, as first-year forward Isabel Cox took her defender off the dribble and fired a cross to Russo.
The forward from Kent, England handled the pass and buried the goal to give the Tar Heels a 1-0 lead.
From there, UNC continued to apply ample pressure on the Wolfpack backline. A couple of near misses and offside calls allowed N.C. State to survive the remainder of the half without any further damage, but the pace of play established heavily favored North Carolina.
The Tar Heel defense held up their end of the bargain, neutralizing any meaningful first half counter-attacks from their in-state rival. At the break the Wolfpack had yet to achieve a single shot on goal.
With a one goal lead as security, the second half allowed the Tar Heels to open up the field and demonstrate their offensive firepower. They continually forced the issue on their opponent's side of the field, and the levies finally broke open for good when first-year forward Isabel Cox sliced-and-diced her way through two defenders down the middle of the field.
She quickly passed off to a wide open Rachel Jones, who slotted the shot in the 75th minute to give UNC a 2-0 lead. The one-touch goal from sophomore midfielder all but solidified the victory for the Tar Heels, but Dorrance’s attack wasn’t done just yet.
In the waning seconds of the game, Russo jumped a pass in the backfield and ripped it home for the game’s third and final exclamation point in the 89th minute.
When it was all said and done, the Tar Heels out-shot the Wolfpack 21-3 in what was both a successful offensive and defensive effort.
Who stood out?
After missing last year’s ACC tournament with a broken leg, Alessia Russo made up for lost time with her standout play on Friday night.
Her two goals, especially the first, electrified the UNC crowd despite the neutral site and forced the Wolfpack defense to account for her at all times. This special attention setup openings for her teammates, as exemplified by Rachel Jones 75th minute goal.
Dorrance saw Russo’s performance on Friday as a reminder of her pre-injury greatness.
“She’s returning to form,” Dorrance said. “The two goals today are part of a statement. She couldn’t have timed her return to full-form better.”
When was it decided?
The second goal in the 75th minute all but sealed the deal for the Tar Heels. Rachel Jones’ goal sent the North Carolina crowd into a frenzy, and for good reason. With N.C. State floundering offensively, the prospect of scoring two goals in 15 minutes ended any ACC championship hopes for the Wolfpack
Why does it matter?
Friday night’s victory sets UNC up for a blockbuster showdown against UVA in the ACC Championship game. The Cavaliers are ranked No. 1 in the country with a record of 16-0-3 while the Tar Heels are the No. 1 seeded team in the tournament with a record of 18-1-1.
The two teams did not face each other during the regular season and neither have lost an ACC game this year.
When do they play next?
The ACC Championship game kicks off on Sunday at noon.
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