There is a reason why almost every UNC field hockey recap is centered around Erin Matson. She plays her best when the pressure is at its highest.
In Friday's match dominated by stout defensive play, neither North Carolina nor Syracuse was able to get any separation through the first three quarters. That's when the 5-foot-4 junior from Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania took over, burying the game-winning goal.
But UNC needed its defense to step up before Matson was able to work her fourth-quarter magic.
The Tar Heels were put to the test in the third quarter. The Orange drew two consecutive penalties that gave them multiple prime scoring opportunities. It appeared as if the momentum was shifted in their favor, but North Carolina didn't panic.
“We came out after halftime with kind of an attitude of aggression and wanting to put this tie game to rest,” Matson said.
The defense held its ground, keeping the score knotted at 0-0. It led to a North Carolina response on the offensive end, getting the ball back into the opponent’s side of the field and earning two straight penalty corners of its own.
“For defense, that’s how we create our energy,” graduate team captain Courtnie Williamson said. “It can be either a moment of weakness or a moment where we’re like, 'Let’s win this, let’s come up and create offense from it.’”
The defense, which has allowed two goals since the team's shocking Oct. 2 loss to Louisville, came up with multiple deflections and clearances to earn their second shutout of the season.
“It was hard work – props to Syracuse. It was definitely tough to play against,” Willliamson said. “But we played as a unit, everyone was gritty and we looked great today, so really proud of the defense.”
The fourth quarter continued to be a tough, physical battle, but on the team’s eighth penalty corner, Matson decided to end the game on her terms. She received the ball from sophomore Romea Riccardo, made a beautiful juke move, found an opening in the cage and suddenly, the Tar Heels were up 1-0.
Matson said that these are the moments she lives for. She said has an internal switch she’s able to turn on when the game gets tense.
“It’s something that I’ve kind of always been blessed with,” Matson said. “I play better when I’m a little intense and angry, so I’ve learned how to put that on for games."
She was elated to see the ball hit the back of the net, embracing with her teammates in a giant huddle. The junior forward did not celebrate much during her time playing club sports, since her team typically beat their opponents handily. She now relishes the feeling she gets from scoring goals for UNC – all 58 of them.
“I don’t think it’ll ever get old. I love scoring,” she said. “People sometimes get upset at me for scoring too much in practice and drills and taking it too seriously and playing the rebounds. But in the end, everyone loves it. I want to spread that just so we can get the ball in the net more.”
Head coach Karen Shelton said she was thrilled with Matson and the Tar Heels’ final quarter performance and how the team responded to its first test since the Louisville game.
“We try and pride ourselves on our fourth-quarter game,” she said. “Like football, we try and put up four fingers. We want to be a fourth-quarter team.”
But Shelton was surprised by the fight Syracuse gave them, calling it a “boxing match.” The Orange, who had been outscored 8-2 in their previous two matches against UNC, battled until the end.
“I think we grew a little in this game and I probably say the same for Syracuse, too,” Shelton said.
But Matson got the final punch with her clutch 53rd minute goal, sealing the win for North Carolina and adding to an already impressive legacy.
“We expected them to be intense; they’re always a very physical team and I think we handled it really well,” Matson said. “They played well, but in the end we came out on top.”
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